- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2006

RICHMOND — Adversaries in the transportation budget standoff took harsher tones publicly and privately yesterday with dueling media campaigns, point-counterpoint press conferences and a legislative threat to have the state auditor review the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission.

The more aggressive tenor came as House and Senate budget negotiators resumed their stalled talks, hoping for a breakthrough before the General Assembly reconvenes in a special session Monday.

Two Republican House members asked the state auditor to review the NVTC’s use of public funds to advocate a steady source of Virginia revenue for the Washington region’s mass transit system.

It’s the second time this month that House Republicans rebuked public officials who are at odds with the House’s budget plan.

Delegate Vincent F. Callahan Jr., Fairfax County Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, upbraided state Community College Chancellor Glenn DuBois and obtained his e-mail and phone records after a newspaper published a letter from a community college president critical of the House budget.

After the NVTC announced plans for a media event in Prince William County to outline the need for reliable funding for the Metro bus and subway system, Delegate Jeffrey M. Frederick protested in e-mail to NVTC’s chairman, Gerald Connolly.

Mr. Frederick, Prince William County Republican, called it a use of tax dollars for political activity that “is at best improper and at worst illegal.”

Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter, Prince William County Republican, wrote in separate e-mail that he is asking Auditor of Public Accounts Walter Kucharski to review it.

Mr. Connolly, who is also chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, wrote in replies to both legislators that he considered their e-mail an “implied threat of retribution.”

“I assure you no threats, implied or otherwise, will deter us from exercising those first- amendment rights on this critical issue,” he wrote.

NVTC insisted that its motives were not partisan or political. Mr. Lingamfelter did not accept that.

“My concern is when they start using tax money to produce leaflets and pay 50,000 volunteers to go through communities and hand this stuff out,” Mr. Lingamfelter said. “You don’t have to be wise as a tree full of owls to see what they’re up to.”

Meanwhile, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, stepped up his public campaign in support of nearly $1 billion a year as the first investment in roads, rails and transit in 20 years.

His political action committee, Moving Virginia Forward, began automated phone calls yesterday and will follow them up with radio ads. He also has resumed his transportation forums.

House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford Republican, joined leaders of a conservation group yesterday in claiming that the Senate, as a budget-negotiating tactic, is trying to gut a tax-credit program that preserves farm, forest and wetland acreage.

“Their proposal will jeopardize all the good work that’s been done to sustain Virginia’s farmlands, woodlands, open spaces, the Chesapeake Bay and other important natural resources,” Mr. Howell said.

The incentive program allows property owners to claim credits that reduce their income taxes by putting land off-limits forever to development. Those tax credits in 2004 were worth nearly $130 million statewide. The Senate plan would limit the statewide value of property that could be registered in any year.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester, Stafford Republican, in response, said he supports credits for conservation easements, but said Virginia’s was “the most liberal in the country” and, without caps, would allow wealthy landowners to drain unknown millions each year from the state treasury.

Yesterday’s tactics mark a substantial escalation in the high-stakes budget impasse. The General Assembly adjourned its 60-day regular session March 11 with the state budget left in limbo for the third time in five years.

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