- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 19, 2002

Gov. Mark R. Warner yesterday signed an executive order creating panels in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to ensure that money raised from a higher sales tax remains in those regions, should voters decide Nov. 5 to increase the tax to fund transportation projects.

The language of the sales-tax referendum says funds from the tax increase must go to regional commissions, not the General Assembly, and that the legislature must spend as much money for transportation in the two regions as it has in the past.

"In a continuing effort to assure Northern Virginians that this money will stay here, this is another layer of protection," Mr. Warner said of his executive order during a signing ceremony in Arlington. "This is an added safeguard to the existing safeguards in place."

The executive order creates the Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Committees, which will consist of three appointed members who will exercise independent oversight of the sales-tax funds and report to the governor. Committee members would not be paid and would have an operating budget of only a few thousand dollars a year.

Mr. Warner already has appointed two members to the Northern Virginia panel: former U.S. Transportation Secretary William T. Coleman, who will serve as the panel's chairman, and Sarah Nutter, a professor at George Mason University's School of Management.

The committee will review annual audits, financial reports and performance reports of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, which will decide how to use the estimated $5 billion the referendum is expected to raise over the next 20 years, if approved by voters.

The panels would come into existence only if the referendums pass. The Northern Virginia sales tax would increase from 4.5 percent to 5 percent; in Hampton Roads, it would increase to 5.5 percent.

Christopher E. Zimmerman, chairman of the Arlington County Board of Supervisors, said this additional oversight will help him and others assure voters that the money will remain in Northern Virginia.

"These are belts and suspenders here. It might not be absolutely necessary, but what's wrong with an extra layer of protection," said Mr. Zimmerman, a Democrat.

Mr. Warner, a Democrat, said he will allow opponents of the referendum to appoint one member to each of the regional committees.

"This thing is a complete sham," said Peter Ferrara, president of the Virginia Club for Growth, one of the leading groups opposing the referendum. "There is no guarantee that the state won't divert the funds to other projects or that we won't lose our fair share of the pot that should come to Northern Virginia anyway.

"Why would any opponents want to serve on this board if it does not address these questions?" he said.

Stewart Schwartz, president of the Coalition for Smart Growth, said the governor's actions do not address concerns of his group about the referendum.

"We need accountability now, before the vote," said Mr. Schwartz, whose group wants assurances about how much each project will cost and that environmentally sound alternatives are being considered.

James Parmelee, chairman of NorthernVirginiaGOP.com, a group opposed to the referendum, said Mr. Warner was taking a step in the right direction, but more must be done.

"All of a sudden, 2½ weeks before the election, the governor is throwing together a commission to enforce what he says does not need to be reinforced," Mr. Parmelee said. "He is responding to our argument and confirming our point."

Unlike other opponents, Mr. Parmelee said he would be willing to serve on the Northern Virginia oversight committee. "The governor is putting together something that should be in place anyway," he said. "The bigger step [for him] is to say he'll do this even if [the referendum] fails."

Mr. Warner, who recently cut $858 million out of the state budget to deal with a massive revenue shortfall, rejected the idea that there's money in the state budget to deal with the transportation crises.

"There's been a lot of misinformation put out there by opponents," he said. "The idea that there is some big pot of money waiting to be tapped to meet Northern Virginia's transportation needs is a falsehood."

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide