- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006

RICHMOND — Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said yesterday that he is prepared to call a special session if lawmakers can’t agree on how to pay for improving the state’s transportation system.

“If we don’t get a deal that addresses transportation in a comprehensive way then we’ll have an extended session or a special session,” Mr. Kaine told The Washington Times yesterday.

Mr. Kaine sounded much like his predecessor, Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat who in 2004 threatened, and then called, a special session during which lawmakers ultimately approved a record $1.38 billion tax increase.

Yesterday, Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, said that up until this point in the current legislative session, the budget discussions have been based on “theoretical” spending proposals.

Now, there are three different transportation plans — raising between $2 billion and $4 billion over four years — that will steer discussions during the remainder of the session, which is scheduled to adjourn March 11.

The House of Delegates and the Senate passed their respective plans yesterday. Mr. Kaine presented his plan after he took office last month.

Mr. Kaine yesterday predicted that the Senate will kill the House proposal and that the House will return the favor before the two chambers would “sit down and lock horns.”

“All the plans are on the table now,” Mr. Kaine said. “We’re looking at all of them trying to kind of mix and match and find the best package. … There is some chance that come March 11 there won’t be a deal, but there isn’t any reason that has to happen. Everyone knows all the options.

The largest rift between lawmakers continues to focus on where the money will come from to pay for the state’s congested roads.

The Senate’s plan calls for nearly $4 billion in higher taxes for roads and transit statewide, including a 5 percent tax increase on wholesale gasoline purchases it hopes will pull in about $500 million.

The House plan uses part of the state’s multibillion dollar surplus and some debt to finance projects mainly in Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads area.

Mr. Kaine’s proposal would raise $1 billion through increased sales taxes on cars, higher fines on bad drivers, increased vehicle registration fees and higher taxes on auto insurance premiums.

The House and Senate drew their philosophical lines in the sand yesterday, approving their competing two-year budgets and transportation plans that will become negotiation points in the coming weeks.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester, Stafford County Republican, dismissed the House plan as “a Band-Aid on a gaping wound” that doesn’t invest in the state’s long-term transportation network.

House Republicans balked at critics such as Mr. Chichester, who say higher taxes are needed.

“You’ll pardon me if I get a little excited when I hear the term ‘investment’ and ‘tax reform’ because two years ago [those words] translated as the largest tax increase in the history of the commonwealth,” said Leo C. Wardrup, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

The Virginia Beach Republican said the plan is not perfect, but “in terms of the monies that we have available, without increasing taxes on the hardworking people of the commonwealth of Virginia, this package does a very, very fine job.”

Delegate Kenneth R. Melvin, Portsmouth Democrat, called the House plan a “weapon of mass deception” that promises a lot but delivers little.

“We’ve got a major problem in Hampton Roads, but we’ve got a crisis in Northern Virginia,” Mr. Melvin said. “We could fix this up if we had the will to do it. … We’re a rich state with low taxes.”

If Mr. Kaine’s prediction is correct, in the coming days each chamber will reject the other’s budget, forcing negotiations into a conference committee made up of a handful of senior lawmakers who will meet mostly behind closed doors.

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