- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2006

RICHMOND — The Virginia General Assembly convenes today in anticipation of a new governor taking the helm this weekend and with a focus on whether to raise taxes for transportation.

Gov.-elect Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat who will be inaugurated Saturday in Williamsburg, has pledged to make the state’s ailing roads system his top priority.

Many lawmakers in the Republican-controlled legislature agree that transportation is in critical need of more funding, but reaching agreement on finding the money will be no easy task.

“I don’t take a no-tax pledge. I’m going to do what I think I need to do to keep the state strong,” Mr. Kaine has said.

He noted that revenue from the state’s gasoline tax — the same 17.5-cent-per-gallon rate since 1986 — is declining as cars get better mileage rates.

Mr. Kaine first wants the state to use its surplus budget dollars and then put a lock on the Transportation Trust Fund so legislators cannot raid the fund in tough times. He fought for the lock while he was lieutenant governor during the past four years but was blocked by the Senate Finance Committee.

The governor-elect has spent the past two months holding a series of town-hall meetings across the state so he could hear ideas about transportation improvements.

Some lawmakers are calling for higher taxes to ease congestion, but others are still fuming over the $1.38 billion tax increase passed in 2004.

“It can be done without a tax increase; we have the money to do it,” said James T. Parmelee, president of Republicans United for Tax Relief. “If you’re not going to give the surplus back to the taxpayers, spend it on transportation.”

Outgoing Gov. Mark Warner applauded his successor’s town-hall meetings.

“Everybody is aware of the problem, but he is starting to build the public support that this is the time for action,” Mr. Warner told The Washington Times last week. “Long-term transportation financing needs are not being met in Virginia, or for that matter anywhere else in the country.”

Legislators from the congested D.C. suburbs agree that transportation must take prevalence this year.

Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax County Republican, said pressure is mounting to take action on transportation.

The primary goal of the upcoming 60-day session is to pass the 2006-08 budget.

Mr. Warner, a Democrat with presidential ambitions, last month outlined spending a $1.5 billion surplus for one-time investments in transportation, technology research and water quality.

His proposed $72 billion budget includes $625 million for several road projects such as the widening of westbound Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway.

Some legislators said Virginia must spend more than that to ease the congestion in Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads area.

“That doesn’t go very far,” said Sen. Charles J. Colgan Sr., Manassas Democrat.

Lawmakers also will debate thousands of bills. Among them is a proposal to punish those caught littering by requiring them to wear a bright orange vest with the words “I am a litterbug.” Another proposal would affirm traditional marriage with an amendment to the state constitution.

House Republicans want to end the estate tax and create a sales-tax holiday for parents who buy school supplies.

Today, the 140-member General Assembly will welcome 17 freshmen.

The House has 56 Republicans, 40 Democrats and three independents with one open seat. The Senate has 24 Republicans and 16 Democrats.

The legislature will hold its session this year in the cramped quarters of the Patrick Henry Building while the state Capitol undergoes renovation.

Lt. Gov.-elect William T. Bolling and Attorney General-elect Robert F. McDonnell, both Republicans, also will be inaugurated Saturday.

Mr. Warner is scheduled to deliver his final State of the Commonwealth address tonight.

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