- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 5, 2002

RICHMOND Republicans charged yesterday that Gov. Mark R. Warner was playing a "shell game" with millions of dollars from a key road-building fund, as negotiations over the $3.8 billion budget gap and tax referendums began in earnest.
"[Mr. Warners] budget doesn't solve our transportation challenges, it only makes them worse," Virginia Republican Party Chairman Gary Thompson said. "Under his plan, the Department of Transportation will have less net dollars to spend building roads."
Mr. Thompson and other Republicans said Mr. Warner wants to take $316 million out of the Transportation Trust Fund in the first year of the 2003-04 budget to fill the $3.8 billion hole and replace it with $280 million in funds that could come from voter-approved tax increases in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
"On the one hand, Mark Warner encourages a tax increase to improve transportation, while on the other hand he is simultaneously stripping the fund of over $300 million," Mr. Thompson said.
Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, had wanted to take $653 million out of the road-building fund to meet expected shortfalls and replace the money with bonds and general fund revenues in later years.
"It was under Republican leadership that the [Virginia Department of Transportation] was plunged into a cash-flow crisis," Warner spokeswoman Ellen Qualls said.
The budget plans by Mr. Warner and the Senate call for the $316 million to be replaced with bonds and future transportation dollars from the federal government.
The House of Delegates' budget plan, however, does not take out any of the money. Instead, the House makes dramatic cuts to education and health care to make up the difference moves that are unacceptable to the governor, Miss Qualls said.
The transportation fund has been one of the main sticking points in closed-door negotiations between Senate and House negotiators.
"That's the focus of the debate," said Delegate John A. Rollison III, Prince William Republican and House Transportation Committee chairman. Mr. Rollison said "raiding" the transportation fund was not an option.
Delegate Thelma Drake said the Warner administration has complained that VDOT is broke, but continues to drain money from the agency.
"They are saying everything is broken, but they are the ones who are asking us to take money out of the trust fund," said Mrs. Drake, Norfolk Republican.
Delegate J. Chapman Petersen, Fairfax Republican, said he cannot understand why the transportation fund should be a sacred cow while social services are cut.
Meanwhile, a proposal by Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, that would redistribute money raised by a Northern Virginia income-tax referendum for education to poorer areas of the state passed out of the Senate Finance Committee 7-5.
The legislation is not expected to go much further, though, as both the House and Senate conference committee members seem ready to dig in their heels. One of the conference committees is expected to meet this morning to try to resolve differences in the bills.
The only consensus that may come out of the closed-door meeting is that Northern Virginia should get a referendum that, if approved, would increase the sales tax from 4.5 cents to 5 cents to pay for $2.3 billion in transportation projects.
If the conference committee cannot agree on a Northern Virginia sales-tax referendum, Mr. Warner likely will include it in a Hampton Roads referendum that has passed both chambers.
Wide differences remain on the issue of a referendum to pay for education needs. The House has approved a Northern Virginia-only income-tax referendum, but the Senate is pressing for a statewide sales-tax referendum.
House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., Amherst Republican, is against the statewide education proposal, and any referendum on education is unlikely to be approved this year.

A Senate committee postponed until next year legislation allowing a homicide prosecution when an assault results in the death of a fetus.
The Courts of Justice Committee made the decision as it worked through a heavy docket yesterday, the deadline for committee action in the 60-day legislative session that is scheduled to end Saturday.
"I'd like to see this issue looked at when we're not trying to finish up in an hour and 46 minutes," said Sen. William C. Mims, Loudoun Republican.
The House of Delegates had voted 72-28 to pass Delegate Terry Kilgore's feticide bill. Mr. Kilgore, Scott Republican, has said attackers are now getting away with murder when an assault on a pregnant woman destroys the fetus.
Ben Greenberg, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood, said Mr. Kilgore's bill would for the first time grant a fetus at any development stage legal status as a person separate from the woman.

The Senate passed legislation to regulate a banking practice that critics say can trap people in a cycle of perpetual debt by offering short-term, high-interest loans secured by a postdated check.
The bill, previously passed by the House of Delegates, was sent to Gov. Mark R. Warner's desk on a vote of 32-6. Mr. Warner has not decided whether he will sign the bill, his spokeswoman said.
Here's how payday lending works: A cash-strapped consumer writes a check for the amount he wants to borrow, plus a fee that the lender keeps. The lender holds the check until a future date typically the borrower's payday before depositing it.
Fees generally are $17 or $18 per $100 borrowed, and loan terms are one or two weeks. Consumer advocates say borrowers often renew or "roll over" the loan when it comes due, piling on more interest charges and falling further behind.
The bill by Delegate Harvey Morgan, Gloucester Republican, caps fees at $15 per $100 borrowed and prohibits rolling over the loans. The maximum loan would be $500.
Sen. Leslie L. Byrne, Fairfax Democrat, said the legislation means the state is sanctioning a practice that many people believe preys on desperate borrowers.
"They're asking for your Good Housekeeping seal of approval on a 340 percent annual percentage rate for a 14-day loan," Mrs. Byrne said. "And this is going to make us a better commonwealth how?"
Sen. William Wampler, Bristol Republican, said the bill merely allows the state to regulate an industry that's already operating in Virginia.
Payday lenders circumvent the state's 36 percent limit on interest rates by affiliating with out-of-state banks that have no limits. Mr. Morgan's bill would allow state-chartered institutions to compete in the booming payday lending business.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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