Last day of legislative business at the “sausage factory”

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You may recall that the standoff over transportation funding turned last year’s General Assembly session, which was my first as your delegate, into the longest in Virginia’s 400-year history. This year, we finished right on time, but the end result on transportation drove home the old expression about making laws and making sausage — neither is a pretty sight.

After giving Governor Kaine a few weeks to mull over the hundreds of bills we passed during the regular legislative session, the General Assembly met Wednesday to act on his vetoes and amendments. The highlight of the day was my first opportunity to serve in the newly renovated Capitol building. While our temporary home in the Patrick Henry Building served us well, it doesn’t compare with majesty and honor of serving in the Capitol designed by Thomas Jefferson himself, which served as the stage for a long but productive final day of legislative business for the year.

Weaddressed a handful of controversial issues. I voted in favor of the Governor’s gutsy vetoes of bills that would unnecessarily expand the use of the death penalty. This was not a tough call. Virginia already executes more people than any state but Texas, and I believe that imprisonment until natural death, with no exceptions, should the ultimate punishment for the ultimate crimes. Others feel differently, and the General Assembly overturned all but one of the Governor’s death penalty vetoes. I also voted in favor of the Governor’s amendment to create smoke-free restaurants in Virginia, and I challenged House Majority Leader Del. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) on the House floor over his absurd claim that people wouldn’t be able to smoke inside hotdog stands. (How does one do anything inside a hotdog stand?) Throughout the day, we also voted on dozens of non-controversial amendments to legislation where the Governor recommended changes to improve people’s original bills. I’m pleased to say that none of the seven bills I got through as chief patron this year required any changes from the Governor,and all will be signed into law and go into effect on July 1.

Perhaps the top issue of interest to most people was the Governor’s major changes to the ill-considered Republican transportation plan that passed the General Assembly in February. That plan had been developed in secret without consulting Democratic legislators and with very little substantive input from the local officials who would be forced to implement its major provisions. The resulting bill would have raided at least $200 million from schools, public safety, and human services to pave roads, and Northern Virginia would have ended up with a pittance. As you can imagine, I voted against it.

While a simple 10 cents per gallon increase in the gas tax would solve our transportation funding problems and still keep Virginia a very low-tax state, nobody with a loud enough microphone had the courage to make that case to the people. This modest move would bring in well over a billion dollars a year for transportation, would amount to a user fee on our roads, would capture money from out-of-state drivers straining our infrastructure,and would avoid creating whole new bureaucracies to fund transportation.

Instead, Governor Kaine used his broad powers to rewrite the Republican plan, and on Wednesday I cast a difficult vote to accept his compromise.While Northern Virginia still will get only about $80 million a year from the $3 billion in bonds included in the statewide part of the plan, the good news is that those bonds now have a dedicated revenue stream to pay them off, as opposed to pitting money for schools and public safety against repaying bond debt. By actually working with local government leaders instead of ignoring them, we now have a workable regional plan that will likely raise more than $400 million a year that will stay in Northern Virginia.

The toughest pill to swallow (and the reason I have a hard time feeling much joy about the final plan) is that we ended up taking about $65 million a year from the General Fund — money that would otherwise go to schools,public safety, and human services — and using it for transportation. At least this is much smaller than the $250 million raid on the General Fund that House Republicans originally tried to push through. In the end, I voted for it only because the Governor’s amendments mean that instead of using nearly all of that money to pave roads, $45 million each year of that $65 million will go directly to pay for public transit, which disproportionately benefits Northern Virginia and disproportionately benefits the poor, the elderly, and the disabled, as well as our area’s commuters.

The final plan is by no means a victory for our sclerotic transportation infrastructure, as it will only meet about half of the unmet funding need. However, on balance, it’s better than inaction, it’s the best we’re going to get through a General Assembly held hostage by hard-line House Republicans,and it will at least get us through the next few years. If anything, it highlights that fact that these kinds of public policy decisions ultimately are made by the voters in November, and this year will be no different.

 

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