- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2007

RICHMOND — A compromise transportation package involving rival House and Senate Republicans died yesterday in a Senate committee, which subsequently approved a competing Senate transportation plan about an hour after it was first made public.

There are only two major differences in the plans, and the Senate proposal to raise the gasoline tax is the most divisive. Last year, the House and Senate quarreled for nine months, with the Senate demanding nearly $1 billion in new taxes for transportation and the House steadfastly rejecting it.

The votes leave the House and Senate once again with fundamental differences over whether to raise taxes statewide for new roads, rails and mass transit — differences that have defied reconciliation for years.

The Senate Finance Committee, in a meeting that tore apart its historic unity, voted 11-4 to reject a fragile composite that Republican senators and delegates had worked on privately for weeks.

Minutes later, the panel voted 9-6 to advance a plan devised largely by the committee’s chairman, Sen. John H. Chichester, Fredericksburg Republican, which was not made public until about 5 p.m. The plan would levy an additional 5 percent tax on gasoline.

House Speaker William J. Howell, Fredericksburg Republican and sponsor of the House version, said the action likely killed any chance of a consensus on the politically volatile issue of transportation heading into November’s elections for all 140 House and Senate seats.

“I’m very disappointed,” Mr. Howell said after the vote. “They seemed to pick the things that are the most objectionable to the majority of the members of the House and put them in there.”

“It’s kind of like they really don’t want to do anything this year. This is a bicameral legislature, and they have to agree to ours and we have to agree to theirs, and I just don’t see that happening right now,” he said.

Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City Republican and Senate sponsor of the compromise package, warned that trying to force the House to accept a statewide tax increase will fail this year and for the foreseeable future.

“If you think, after the 2007 election cycle, that there’s going to be a whole new persona down the hall, a whole new personality, that there’s going to be an epiphany, a moment of lucidity where the House Republicans are going to all of a sudden say we’re going to embrace with enormous affection a statewide tax for transportation, I need for you to check into my hotel of reality,” said Mr. Norment, who for years has been one of the most ardent critics of the anti-tax House.

The other major difference in the plans is their reliance on the general fund, the money source that pays for such core state missions as public education, public safety and health care.

The Senate plan would use about $66 million from the state general fund annually while the House-Senate compromise would use nearly four times as much, or $250 million a year. Senate Democrats contend it’s even higher.

“Tommy, you’ve given away too much. You’ve given away the principles of this Senate,” Sen. R. Edward Houck, Spotsylvania Democrat, told Mr. Norment. “We can’t even meet those responsibilities now, much less draining $400 million out of the general fund every year.”

The Senate plan was piggybacked onto an existing transportation funding bill by Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., Winchester Republican.

Mr. Potts defended the gasoline sales tax, which would add about 8.8 cents to the cost of a gallon at today’s prices for unleaded regular. Without it, visitors to Virginia — a major East Coast tourism venue — pay nothing toward repairing the state’s crumbling roads or easing highway gridlock, he said.

Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, however, said that not only would Mr. Potts’ plan die in the House, it might not make it there.

Speaking tersely and firing question after question about the bill at Mr. Potts and Mr. Chichester, Mr. Stolle said Mr. Potts’ substitute so radically changed the original bill that it is no longer germane. If his point is raised and upheld before the full Senate or, later, in the House, the bill would be declared out of order and would die.

“As a result, you’re left with nothing,” said Mr. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican and a supporter of the compromise.

• Red-light cameras

For the first time, the full Virginia House of Delegates will get a chance to vote on legislation to allow the use of cameras for traffic-light enforcement statewide.

The House Transportation Committee voted 19-2 yesterday to send the measure to the floor.

Pilot programs allowing so-called photo-red enforcement in several Northern Virginia localities and Virginia Beach expired July 1, 2005. The House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee has since rejected several measures to reinstate those programs.

Attempts to expand the program also have failed over the years.

The programs take pictures of cars that run lights at certain busy intersections. The license-plate number is used to identify the car’s owner, who then gets a ticket in the mail.

Supporters of the technology say it encourages compliance with the law and saves lives by reducing broadside collisions. Critics question the safety benefits, say the use of cameras is an invasion of privacy and worry that police will use the cameras primarily to raise money.

The legislation endorsed yesterday addresses the revenue-generating concern by restricting the use of photo-red to dangerous and hard-to-enforce intersections approved by the Virginia Department of Transportation.

The bill — a combination of proposals by Republican Delegates John A. Cosgrove of Chesapeake and Michele B. McQuigg of Prince William County — also limits red-light cameras to one per 10,000 residents. Nancy Rodrigues, a longtime photo-red advocate, said that provision assures rural lawmakers that there won’t be a camera on every corner.

• Castration bill

A state senator has watered down his proposal to allow the castration of certain sex offenders.

Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. created a stir last year when he introduced a bill to allow violent sexual predators to choose castration as an alternative to indefinite commitment to a secure treatment center after their release from prison.

The proposal was criticized by psychiatric experts who questioned the effectiveness of castration and civil liberties advocates who consider the procedure barbaric.

Mr. Hanger, Augusta Republican, postponed the legislation until this year. He amended the measure yesterday to direct the state Department of Mental Health and the attorney general’s office to study the feasibility of castration as part of his proposed “involuntary outpatient program.”

They would report their findings to the General Assembly in 2008.

“I continue to be a proponent of voluntary physical and chemical castration as a treatment option for violent sexual predators,” Mr. Hanger told the Senate Education and Health Committee. “Obviously, there have been significant concerns.”

The committee adopted Mr. Hanger’s revision and sent it to the Courts of Justice Committee for further analysis.

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