- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Virginia General Assembly returns to Richmond today for a one-day session to consider Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s rewrite of a massive transportation package, opposition to expanding the death penalty and push to outlaw smoking in restaurants.

“These days always seem to take twists and turns,” said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican. “I expect it will be a long day.”

Lawmakers appear ready to approve a transportation deal that relies heavily on borrowing $3 billion in bonds and giving Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads the power to raise local fees and taxes for road and rail projects.

Republicans leaders have indicated they would support the transportation rewrite Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, released last week, which now allows localities to charge impact fees on residential and commercial development. The idea behind the fees is that builders should pay for transportation improvements because their developments increase traffic congestion.

“I don’t know if everyone is holding hands on it, but there appears to be enough of a cohesive group sticking together,” said Sen. J. Brandon Bell II, Roanoke Republican, who plans to support the proposal. “I’m hearing there is a fairly broad acceptance.”

While some lawmakers have touted the Republican-designed transportation package as a grand compromise, conservative Republicans and Democrats say it is little more than an election-year fix.

All 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for election this fall.

“I think there are a lot off good things in it, but I think the bad things still overcome the good things,” said Delegate Jeffrey M. Frederick, Prince William County Republican, who opposes the deal.

Still, the plan brings Republicans and Democrats closer on the issue than they have been in years and would represent the largest reform of transportation funding since 1986.

While transportation dominated most of the legislative session, some lawmakers expect the governor’s push to make restaurants smoke-free and his vetoes of death-penalty legislation will generate the most-boisterous debate today.

The smoking debate flared up last week after Mr. Kaine revised a bill that would have required restaurants to be smoke-free unless they posted a sign at any entrances stating “smoking permitted.”

Mr. Kaine amended the bill to ban smoking in all Virginia restaurants, saying it is “an important step to protect the health of both patrons and employees.”

Mr. Bell agreed.

“It is a public health measure,” he said. “It’s so clear that exposure to secondhand smoke is dangerous to so many of our citizens.”

On Monday, Mr. Kaine found another ally in U.S. Sen. John W. Warner, a Republican, who endorsed the smoking ban.

However, Mr. Frederick said state government should not act like “nannies” looking over business owners’ shoulders and that the legislation is too broad.

“I’m not going to shed any tears when I walk into a restaurant and there is no smoking, but I don’t think it’s the government’s job to tell small-business men what they can and cannot do,” he said. “Smoking is legal in America.”

Mr. Griffith, who sponsored the original proposal, thinks the bill will die. “It’s a shame because if the bill is allowed to become law, it would be a step in the right direction,” he said.

Republicans also are expected today to make another attempt at expanding the death penalty to include people abetting a “triggerman” in a murder.

Last week, Mr. Kaine vetoed the “triggerman” legislation and a bill that would make people convicted of killing a judge or witness eligible to receive the death penalty.

“These are heinous crimes,” Mr. Frederick said.

Mr. Kaine, a Catholic who in 2005 vowed to uphold the state’s capital-punishment law despite his religious beliefs, has allowed four of five executions since he took office last year.

The death penalty became a major issue during his gubernatorial race, when Jerry W. Kilgore, the Republican nominee, criticized Mr. Kaine’s opposition to capital punishment.

In turn, Mr. Kaine vowed that he would uphold Virginia’s capital-punishment law, despite the teachings of his faith.

Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax County Republican, said he “doubts” the governor’s death-penalty vetoes will be overturned because two-thirds of each chamber must agree before a veto can be overridden. For that to happen, the Democratic minority would have to side with Republicans.

“I never expected him to support bills to expand the death penalty,” he said, “although I will vote for them.”

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