- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 6, 2002

RICHMOND The Virginia Senate yesterday rejected a conference committee proposal that would have given Northern Virginia voters the right to vote to increase their sales tax to pay for transportation projects.
By a vote of 27 to 12, the Republican-controlled Senate defeated the plan, offered earlier in the morning by the conference committee. The House of Delegates was to have taken a vote later in the day, but tabled the report.
"I think at this [late date], this was our only shot on that bill," said Sen. Warren E. Barry, Fairfax Republican. "It certainly doesn't look good for Northern Virginia in terms of its needs for transportation."
The Senate wants a statewide sales-tax referendum to pay for education needs to be included on the ballot in November with a Northern Virginia transportation referendum, which would raise the 4.5 percent sales tax by a half-percent to pay for about $2.4 billion in specific projects.
"I don't think either one of these can pass, given the atmosphere that we have in our region right now between the people who favor transportation and who favor education," said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, on the floor.
"We are most likely to have successful outcome if those are on there together. Birds can't fly with one wing, and neither will a referendum," he said.
All Senate Democrats, except Sen. Charles J. Colgan of Manassas and a member of the conference committee, voted against the bill. Those voting for it included Republicans from Hampton Roads who already have had a similar proposal passed by both chambers that is now before Gov. Mark R. Warner.
The House voted 52-47 earlier in the session for the transportation-only referendum, sponsored by Delegate John A. Rollison III, Prince William Republican.
Mr. Warner said yesterday he is determined to have referendums on the ballot in Northern Virginia this year, and aides said the governor likely will have to attach an amendment to the Hampton Roads transportation referendum to include one for Northern Virginia.
The Democratic governor said he will still urge lawmakers' support for a statewide education referendum.
"That discussion will continue long past this Saturday" when the General Assembly adjourns, Mr. Warner said.
"I'm going to continue to press the case that there are unmet needs across the Commonwealth in education that voters ought to have a chance to weigh in on."
One of the conference committee members said he and other senators will push to have a statewide education referendum that could increase the sales tax to 5 percent for everyone in the state.
"This is just the beginning, not the end of the process," said Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican. "In the end, I think we are going to report out a statewide referendum [in the Senate]."
House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. is against any statewide tax increase, even if it's one approved by voters. He said yesterday that he has done all he can to give Northern Virginians the chance to have a transportation referendum.
"I'm not going to get any of the blame for it," said Mr. Wilkins, Amherst Republican.
With the House and Senate digging in, it seems unlikely that any referendum will be on the ballot this fall in Northern Virginia.
Another conference committee takes up Mr. Colgan's bill today that would have a transportation referendum in Northern Virginia and statewide education ballot measure.
The Senate is expected to approve that measure, but it will likely be killed in the House.
Votes are also slipping on the House side to pass any sort of referendum, and the Senate will probably reject any sort of transportation referendum even if it comes from the governor.
Meanwhile, a House-Senate conference committee working on the state's budget seemed close to agreement on how to fill a $3.8 billion hole in the state's spending blueprint by its self-imposed midnight deadline.
"I'm determined to meet that deadline," said Delegate Vincent F. Callahan Jr., Fairfax Republican and House Appropriations Committee chairman.
Mr. Wilkins also seemed optimistic that the nine senior lawmakers meeting behind closed doors will come to an agreement on the state's $51 billion budget for 2003-04 and the 2002 "caboose" budget that has a $1.3 billion gap in it.
"They seem to be making some progress," Mr. Wilkins said.

The House passed legislation allowing police to arrest drivers who exhibit signs of alcohol consumption beer breath or slurred speech, for example and have an open booze container in the car's passenger compartment.
Under those circumstances, drivers would be presumed in violation of the law against drinking and driving, even if the container was stowed in the back seat or was being held by a passenger.
Critics of the bill argued that a person who has a glass or two of wine at a party and then brings the unfinished bottle home could be charged, even though he wasn't drinking behind the wheel.
"What we're doing with this is not necessarily getting at drunk driving at all," said Delegate John S. "Jack" Reid, Henrico County Republican. "This is a piece of legislation to make somebody feel good and a piece of legislation that's difficult to enforce."
As introduced, Sen. Thomas K. Norment's bill would have simply banned open alcohol containers from passenger compartments of vehicles on Virginia roads.
However, some lawmakers argued that mere possession of an open container has no connection to drunken driving.
A House committee redrafted the bill, tying it to the current law against drinking and driving. Instead of the $25 civil fine in Mr. Norment's original bill, violators would face a $250 fine if convicted of the misdemeanor.
Virginia has had $12 million in federal highway funds diverted to alcohol-education programs because of its refusal to pass an open-container ban. Because the revised bill does not cover drinking by passengers, the state will lose another $12.4 million this year.
Thirty-four states and the District prohibit open booze containers in passenger compartments, according to the Washington Regional Alcohol Program.

The House overwhelmingly approved legislation allowing private companies to build structures they would lease to local governments for schools by day and use for commercial purposes nights and weekends.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Walter A. Stosch, Henrico County Republican, is modeled after a 1995 law that allows public-private partnerships for state transportation projects.
The proposal would allow developers to construct schools and other facilities for both private and public use. For example, a high school cafeteria could be operated as a cafe at night. The owners would make money from the business, and the school district's lease payments would be cheaper than financing the building on its own.
Delegate James K. "Jay" O'Brien, Fairfax Republican, said he was worried that the bill would undermine the state's public procurement law, which in most cases requires competitive bidding for construction projects.
Under Mr. Stosch's bill, when a private development group proffers a project, local officials would have to provide public notice of it and allow 45 days for other developers to submit a competing proposal. During that time, almost all of the proposal's details would be confidential.
The House voted 86-13 to pass the bill, which goes back to the Senate for consideration of House amendments.

The Senate approved legislation that would authorize the expansion of 325 miles of Interstate 81 from four lanes to eight.
The Senate voted 29-10 for the bill after Sen. William Wampler, Bristol Republican, added a provision that would limit tolls to commercial vehicles, such as big rigs, and exempt passenger cars, motorcycles and pickup trucks.
The vote returns the bill to the House of Delegates to accept or reject Mr. Wampler's amendment.
As it emerged from the House, the legislation gave the Commonwealth Transportation Board the authority to determine whether tolls are imposed on the widened segments of the interstate, which links Winchester to Bristol.
The dominant feature of the proposed interstate project is adding two new interior lanes in each direction dedicated exclusively to truck traffic. Cars and other passenger traffic would use two outside lanes.
To pay for the additional lanes, tolls would be applied electronically to trucks by wireless transponders similar to the Smart Tag automated tolling system that allows motorists to cruise through tollbooths without tossing change into a basket.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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