- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s announcement that he will seek re-election rather than challenge Attorney General Robert McDonnell for the Republican gubernatorial nomination next year is arguably the first good news that the Virginia Republicans have had in several years. Mr. Bolling’s decision to run for lieutenant governor with Mr. McDonnell as part of a unified Republican Party ticket spares the party a bitter primary fight between conservatives and gives the GOP team more than a year and a half to make the case voters should return Republicans to the governor’s mansion.

The McDonnell-Bolling ticket provides an opportunity for Republicans to end a steady slide that began with the resignation of House Speaker Vance Wilkins in the summer of 2002. Following Mr. Wilkins’ departure, Senate Republicans led by Finance Committee Chairman John Chichester began working energetically and openly to split the GOP in two on the subject of tax increases for transportation, with Senate Republicans supporting higher taxes and House Republicans opposing them. In 2004, Democratic Gov. Mark Warner asked the Republican-controlled legislature to support a $1.4 billion tax increase, something that would have been unthinkable when Mr. Wilkins was speaker.

In 2005, Republicans were disappointed when Attorney General Jerry Kilgore lost to the governor’s race to Democrat Tim Kaine. In 2006, the party suffered another blow when Sen. George Allen was defeated for re-election. In 2007, House and Senate Republicans united behind a transportation funding compromise that did not involve a statewide tax increase. But the “abusive driver” fines included in the bill triggered a firestorm of opposition. In November, the Democrats recaptured control of the Virginia Senate. Earlier this year, the transportation compromise collapsed, with the legislature voting to repeal the fines and the Virginia Supreme Court striking down as unconstitutional the local taxing authorities established by the bill.

This issue has the potential to create a tremendous problem for the Republican Party and Mr. McDonnell in particular if not handled correctly. The attorney general helped broker last year’s transportation deal. Now that it has collapsed, it is essential to come up with a new method of funding transportation projects in major population areas like Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Sometime in the next few weeks, Mr. Kaine is expected to call a special session on transportation, and he has raised the possibility of funding this at least in part through tax increases, as have some Republican legislators. We strongly disagree.

As we have argued many times before, the crux of the problem is the existing funding formula, which allocates taxpayer monies to less-populous rural areas at the expense of traffic-choked jurisdictions in Northern Virginia. But this won’t change so long as the governor and lawmakers think it is politically easier to raise taxes than to address the real problem: squandering resources on low-priority projects so that some politicians can brag about the pork they’re bringing home from Richmond. That’s why Mr. McDonnell and Mr. Bolling need to make reforming the funding system a top priority.

The Republican Party looks to be very competitive in the 2009 governor’s race, due largely to the statesmanlike approach taken by Messrs. McDonnell and Bolling that will spare the party a bruising primary fight. But the situation in the this year’s Senate race to replace retiring Republican incumbent John Warner looks very bleak. In that contest, Democrat Mark Warner is favored in the race against two Republicans (former Gov. Jim Gilmore and Delegate Robert Marshall), who appear to be headed for a bitter political fight that is not terribly different from the Obama-Clinton race.

As the two most important Republican Party leaders in Virginia, Robert McDonnell and Bill Bolling have some tremendous challenges ahead of them.

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