While Northern Virginia commuters continue to curse the car-parked roads which leave them running late to work, school or even the simplest of errands, elected officials claim the biggest clogged artery these days may be in Richmond. The political gridlock in Americas oldest legislative body makes rush hour at the I-395 mixing bowl look like a cakewalk by comparison.
Over the next few weeks, Governor Tim Kaine and the Republican-dominated Virginia Legislature hope to hammer out a compromise on a $2.5 billion transportation funding bill now tied up in a legislative stalemate, to reach agreement before their special one-day session on April 4.
Its crunch time, Kaine said Monday at an economic forum in Crystal City. Im not going to sign the bill as is, and no one whos read the (roads bill) said it doesnt need changes. It has to be something that everyone can agree on.
At the Monday event, Kaine issued the glowing news that Virginia is now ranked the most business-friendly state in the country, according to an independent study by Chicago-based Pollina Corporate Real Estate, Inc. But in accepting the award, Kaine warned that the lack of meaningful progress on a long-term transportation bill could hurt that distinction in the future.
Transportation infrastructure and the power of your educational system are probably the two most critical things you can do to have a strong economy, Kaine said, to applause from economic forecasters.
By Monday afternoon, Kaine was again meeting with Northern Virginia leaders, telling them the mandate for local communities to raise taxes and take over local roads will not be in any transportation funding bill he returns to the state legislature.
This money should be raised locally and spent locally, said House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Fredericksburg), in a phone interview Monday. Howell said Republicans have not encountered too many insurmountable barriers in fine-tuning the 105-page bill with their Democratic counterparts, but accused Dems of trying to paint their effort in the least favorable light.
Politics over pancakes
At the heart of the transportation package as it now stands is how to fund or finance massive improvements to the states overcrowded roads and transit systems. At a pancake breakfast Saturday at an Alexandria middle school, Democratic lawmakers were clearly frustrated by an impasse in the transportation package, and were quick to heap blame on the Republican-dominated legislature, which occupies 57 of the 100 seats.
Their bill was shabbily written, charged Del. Brian Moran (D-46), chair of the House Democratic Caucus. It had over 100 technical amendments, some of which made no sense…Ive urged Governor Kaine to amend this flawed, last-minute bill because it borrows too much, shortchanges Northern Virginia and heavily raids the general fund.
Howell said the amount of state money disbursed in the Republican plan, about $184 million, never exceeds 1 percent of the states treasury, which itself totals $17.5 billion. Its hard to see how thats going to hurt things we all traditionally support, he said,
Lawmakers from both sides remain guardedly optimistic, however.
At a Thursday meeting in Richmond between Republican and Democratic leadership conferees, Brian Moran said it was the first time they agreed to compromise on many of the bills details. But, he said, In terms of raiding the General Fund, theyre not backing off.
No, were not backing off, Speaker Howell said. This needs to get done now…Or its unlikely well take this up again until another three or four years from now.