- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

RICHMOND — The General Assembly yesterday passed a landmark transportation bill that pumps millions of additional dollars into road and rail projects across Virginia and marks the largest infusion of new state money for transportation since 1986.

“We worked together in a bipartisan fashion to bring a positive change for the people of Virginia,” said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican.

House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong, Martinsville Democrat, said the deal was “the best we could do, given the political parameters.”

Lawmakers hope the deal, which Democrats and Republicans said represented a true compromise, will help ease the frustration of residents weary of sitting on Virginia’s traffic-choked roads.

“I think it will produce benefits for all Virginians,” said Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat.

The bill was passed during the General Assembly’s one-day veto session inside the newly renovated Capitol building.

State lawmakers accepted amendments by Mr. Kaine to the Republican-crafted transportation bill, but voted against his push to ban smoking in restaurants.

The measure as passed by the General Assembly now returns to Mr. Kaine, who said he will veto it. Lawmakers will not have an opportunity to override the veto, which means the public smoking law adopted in 1990 will remain unchanged.

Lawmakers also overrode the governor’s veto of a bill that makes people convicted of killing judges or witnesses eligible for the death penalty.

“If one innocent person can be protected by application of death penalty, then I think it is worth it,” said Delegate C. Todd Gilbert, Woodstock Republican. “They deserve our protection.”

However, lawmakers were unable to garner enough votes to override Mr. Kaine’s veto of the so-called “triggerman” bill, which would have expanded the death penalty to murder accomplices.

Under the transportation deal, the state uses $3 billion in bonds and earmarks two-thirds of future state surpluses for statewide projects. In addition, the state will empower local authorities in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads — the most congested regions of the state — to raise taxes and fees for road upgrades. The bodies could raise as much as $600 million annually.

The regional plans remain controversial because if six of nine communities join Northern Virginia’s taxing body, the remaining three must abide. In the Hampton Road region, seven of the 12 localities must join for a regional tax authority to form.

Delegate Lionell Spruill Sr., Chesapeake Democrat, said state lawmakers were putting their responsibility on the backs of local elected officials.

“We haven’t fixed nothing,” he said. “All we have done is pass it on to local governments. All we are doing is hiding behind local governments.”

The plan also calls on the average Virginian to pay an additional $10 to register a vehicle, charges habitually bad drivers annual fees of $100 to $1,000 for three consecutive years if they want to continue driving legally and increases the diesel-fuel tax from 16 cents to 17.5 cents.

In addition, the state will allow some growing Virginia localities to start charging so-called “impact fees” on commercial real-estate development. If fully implemented, lawmakers and the governor estimate that the plan could generate about $1 billion a year for roads.

For Republicans, the deal signals the end of years of bickering between House and Senate members over how best to pay for transportation. For Mr. Kaine, the deal fulfills his 2005 campaign promise to deliver a roads solution.

“This transportation issue is very hard,” he said. “I tackled it right out of the blocks because I knew it might be the hardest thing I might have to tackle, [and] I figured I am going to stay at it until I find a resolution.”

Political pundits and lawmakers say the deal alters the political landscape heading into the fall, when all 140 General Assembly seats are up for election. They think the agreement will at least slow Democrats’ blaming Republicans for failing to resolve the state’s transportation woes.

Democrats are confident that Mr. Kaine’s ability to broker a compromise will increase his popularity with voters and that they will benefit as a result.

Coming into the legislative session, it was not clear whether Republicans could reach a compromise. In the past, many representing the southern part of the state and other rural regions were wary of new or increased taxes or fees for roads because their constituents would likely receive little in return.

However, they entered the 2007 legislative session hungry for a win after two consecutive gubernatorial defeats and Sen. George Allen’s re-election loss in November. Party leaders, including Attorney General Bob McDonnell, a Republican, reached a transportation deal in February that appeased the anti-tax House members and Senate centrists — the sides that had battled for years over the best way to fund road projects.

Republicans say the big breakthrough came in January when a powerful group of senators known as the Gang of Five fell apart.

The group — led by Senate Finance Chairman John H. Chichester, Stafford County Republican — had helped then-Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, steer a $1.3 billion tax increase through the General Assembly in 2004 and last year supported Mr. Kaine’s push to increase statewide taxes for road upgrades.

The group’s falling apart and the announced retirements of the Mr. Kaine’s closest Republican allies in the Senate put pressure on him to reach a deal before potential losses in the fall elections made conditions even worse.

Mr. Kaine’s revisions to the bill, which were released last week, left much of the deal intact. However, he tinkered with the regional authorities to appease the concerns of local leaders and opted to use more of the state’s future surpluses to avoid using general operating funds.

Lawmakers yesterday seemed to accept the deal more than praise it.

Retiring Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., Winchester Republican, called it a “turkey.”

“This is a Band-Aid, a tiny little Band-Aid,” he said. “It gets you through the election cycle, but make no mistake, this does not fix the transportation situation.”

Sen. R. Edward Houck, Spotsylvania Democrat, applauded the governor’s leadership and said the plan was “better than nothing.”

Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City Republican who helped reach the compromise, said lawmakers who voted for the bill exercised “political courage.”

“Never once did I suggest it was the ultimate solution,” he said. “What I did share with you is that the political realities were: Are we going to do something or are we going do nothing?”

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