- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

RICHMOND — Virginia lawmakers are heading full speed toward a showdown over increased taxes for roads and public transit.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, is proposing a series of fee and tax increases that would raise $3.7 billion over four years.

Meanwhile, the Senate has offered an even larger $4 billion plan that, among other things, raises the gasoline tax, while the tax-averse House is expected this week to propose legislation that would ease congestion without raising taxes.

Call it a repeat of the 2004 General Assembly, when the two chambers and then-Gov. Mark Warner feuded for months until agreeing on a $1.38 billion tax increase that didn’t address transportation needs.

Now, Virginia has a nearly $2 billion surplus, and lawmakers agree that something must be done to ease the state’s gridlocked highways. But they can’t agree on how to pay for a solution.

“There’s just no reason to be raising taxes. In fact, we should be cutting taxes,” said Delegate Mark L. Cole, Fredericksburg Republican, who is part of the anti-tax majority in the House that has said it will stand firm against increases because of the surplus.

“Government is taking in enough money to start addressing our transportation needs without raising taxes,” he said.

House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford County Republican, said with the “booming economy” and the surplus, “going back to the hard-working people of Virginia for higher taxes is not the answer.”

Mr. Kaine’s plan would increase the tax on insurance premiums and the fee for registering cars. It also would impose higher fines on traffic violations, such as speeding or drunken driving.

The plans proposed by the Senate and by Mr. Kaine would increase the motor vehicle sales tax from 3 percent to 5 percent. The increase would raise more than $1 billion over four years by adding $600 to the bill for a $30,000 car.

The Senate plan also proposes raising the tax on gasoline and diesel fuel and on car repairs. The gasoline-tax increase faces the most opposition.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester said the state cannot procrastinate any longer.

“We have the tools. All we need is the resolve to allow users of the system to pay for the system,” the Stafford County Republican said yesterday.

“The secret here is not to have to revisit it every four years.”

Mr. Chichester defended the Senate plan’s gasoline-tax increase, noting that residents of other states use Virginia roads and should be expected to chip in for road maintenance.

The last time the state increased the gasoline tax was 1986.

Jay Fisette, chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and a member of the Arlington County Board, said the Washington suburbs will be “strangled” by population growth in 25 years without a better transportation system and an improved Metrorail system.

“If you don’t expand it, the region could come to a standstill,” he said.

However, anti-tax Republicans note that voters had a chance in 2002 to raise taxes for transportation in a referendum, and they overwhelmingly rejected the idea.

Most lawmakers think the referendum measures failed because voters did not trust the money would be spent on transportation.

But, the lawmakers say, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has made many improvements since then.

Mr. Kaine said his plan addresses transportation in a “creative” way and will ensure the state continues to focus on VDOT’s accountability.

The 2004 tax increase, which raised the sales, cigarette and real estate transaction taxes and cut some others, passed by a slim margin in the House.

A group of centrist Republicans teamed with Democrats to pass the increase and avoid a government shutdown, the end result if lawmakers didn’t agree on a new budget by the end of the fiscal year.

The dynamic isn’t quite the same this year.

If lawmakers fail to hammer out an agreement on transportation, the state government will continue to operate because transportation spending is handled separately from the overall budget.

In addition, several Republicans who voted for the tax increase are no longer in the House, and even though Democrats have increased their numbers, it will be tougher to reach a majority.

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