Legislature gives up on transportation fix

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Legislature gives up on transportation fix
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After six days, a handful of press conferences, hours of partisan bickering and tens of thousands of dollars in costs to taxpayers, legislators gave up on a transportation solution Thursday morning and went home.

Two Democratic plans to fund transportation statewide were voted down by the House of Delegates on Wednesday afternoon. Hours later, a Republican proposal to fund transportation only in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads was defeated by a Senate committee as the clock ticked toward midnight.

Gov. Tim Kaine (D) had called the legislators into special session on June 23 to deal with the $1.1 billion hole in the states transportation budget. After several days of political gridlock, they took two weeks off, vowing to try again on July 9.

Kaine had proposed a series of tax increases to fund transportation maintenance statewide and had also suggested tax and fee hikes in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to deal with local transportation fixes.

The House of Delegates first defeated Kaines plan in committee two weeks ago but resurrected it on Wednesday afternoon, only to bury it again on a technicality. After that, Del. Clay Athey (R-Fauquier) revived it yet again for another vote.

“I felt it was important for the citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia to have a vote,” he said, adding that he planned to vote against the bill because “I dont believe this is the right time to raise taxes.”

By that time, however, House Democrats had abandoned Kaines plan in favor of a competing Senate measure introduced by Sen. Dick Saslaw (D-Springfield). Republicans had never supported Kaines proposal and Atheys attempt to resurrect it went down unanimously in the House.

“The governors bill is a failure,” said Centreville Del. Tim Hugo (R). “Its a bad bill. Its been a failure since Day 1.”

Saslaws bill had passed the Senate on a party-line vote two weeks earlier and included statewide tax increases, including a hike in the gas tax, as well as local tax hikes in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, Richmond and Fredericksburg.

House Democrats stripped Saslaws bill of its gas tax provision, hoping that it would be more palatable without the controversial gas tax increase.

But in vain; House Republicans maintained that a tough economic year is not the time to raise taxes.

“I get the impression that some people here think citizens are bottomless ATM machines,” said Loudoun Del. Bob Marshall (R).

Del. Vivian Watts (D-Annandale) countered that if the General Assembly had been dealing with transportation as it should have all along, it wouldnt be necessary to raise taxes now in a crisis situation.

“This I not an easy time to be doing what we have to do,” she said, but added that keeping traffic moving is “the basic business of government.”

“Now is the time to act,” she said.

But the argument didnt fly and Saslaws plan went down 39-59 in the House with some Democrats voting against it.

The final plan was a compromise bill introduced by Dels. Phil Hamilton (R-Newport News) and Dave Albo (R-Springfield). Originally, that plan called for tax increases in Northern Virginia only. Hamilton planned to fund Hampton Roads transportation by giving that region an extra share of money from the states General Fund.

But that idea was met with widespread criticism from local officials in Northern Virginia so Hamilton and Albo revised it, instead offering both Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads an extra share of General Fund revenue without raising taxes.

“It allows Northern Virginia to keep a small portion of the money it generates to solve it own transportation,” Albo said.

The idea was that 30 percent of all future growth attributed to the airports in Northern Virginia would be used for Northern Virginia transportation and 30 percent of all future growth attributed to the Port of Hampton Roads will be used for Hampton Roads transportation.

The sticking point was that those funds would otherwise have been used to pay for schools, health care, jails and public safety for the entire state.

“If we pull these revenues out of the General Fund, where do we get the money for schools, corrections, mental health?” asked Falls Church Del. Robert Hull (D). “What other taxes are we going to have to increase to plug the hole in the General Fund?”

Hamilton and his supporters maintained that without road fixes in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, economic growth will grind to a halt so the state wouldnt get funds from new growth anyway.

The Hamilton-Albo plan escaped the House on a 51-45 vote Wednesday before going down in Saslaws Senate committee.

And with that, the great debate was over and any transportation fix will have to wait until the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

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