- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 18, 2007

RICHMOND — The General Assembly enters the last week of its 46-day session today with several key issues still unresolved, including the one that kept lawmakers in the state capitol for most of last year: the first significant funding increase for transportation since 1986.

Also still pending are proposals to curb smoking in restaurants, ban cell phone use by teenage drivers and apologize for the state’s role in slavery.

• Transportation: Six delegates and five senators face the challenge of reaching a deal agreeable to the anti-tax House Republican majority and a coalition of minority Democrats and Republican moderates in the Senate.

The main sticking point is whether to divert $250 million annually from the state’s general operating fund to pay for transportation projects. The House favors it. The Senate opposes it and instead wants a new $150 registration fee the first time a car is registered in Virginia.

House leaders say revenue growth is robust enough to use the general fund, but opponents say the proposal would take money from public schools, health care and law enforcement.

Sen. Frank W. Wagner, Virginia Beach Republican and one of the negotiators on the transportation bill, said the size of the commitment will be the “salient point.”

The conference committee is heavily weighted in favor of those who support using general funds, but Mr. Wagner said the views of the other side must be considered in the negotiations.

He also said avoiding a repeat of last year’s stalemate on transportation is crucial because highway construction costs are rapidly increasing, which means further delay will cost taxpayers more in the long run.

Senate Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch, Henrico Republican, said beyond helping commuters, resolving the issue now is crucial because all 140 legislative seats are on the ballot in the fall elections.

“It’s important to maintain our majorities,” he said.

• Smoking: A proposal by Sen. J. Brandon Bell II, Southwest Virginia Republican, to ban smoking in restaurants and most other public places is languishing in a House subcommittee, where it seems likely to die.

That leaves House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith’s “Smoking Permitted” sign bill as the only real possibility for tighter restrictions on public smoking. His measure would eliminate the requirement that larger restaurants have a nonsmoking section but would require eateries that allow smoking to post a sign at the entrance saying so.

Mr. Griffith, a Salem Republican, predicts most restaurants would go smoke-free to avoid posting the sign, but public health advocates view lifting the nonsmoking section mandate as a retreat.

The bill awaits action in the Senate. Mr. Bell said Friday that he will consult with anti-smoking activists to determine whether to try to amend Mr. Griffith’s bill to make it tougher.

• Cell phones: For the second time in three years, Sen. Jay O’Brien’s bill to prohibit cell phone use by drivers younger than 18 has advanced to the House floor.

His challenge now is to persuade delegates not to amend it to allow an exception for hands-free devices. The House added such an amendment in 2005, prompting Mr. O’Brien, a Fairfax Republican, to withdraw his bill.

• Minimum wage: Legislation to raise Virginia’s minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.50 an hour squeaked through committee and awaits House floor action. It has already passed the Senate.

• State budget: Revisions to the two-year state budget will be among the last issues resolved.

Differences in the House and Senate plans are relatively modest. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, already has urged the budget conferees to restore some of his priorities that were cut by the House, including some education and economic development initiatives.

Conferees face a midnight Tuesday deadline for completing their work, but that deadline has been missed more often than met in recent years.

• Slavery apology: Should the General Assembly acknowledge “with contrition” Virginia’s role in slavery, or should it express “profound regret” for slavery and other forms of discrimination and bias, including injustices to American Indians?

Lawmakers seem to agree that some form of apology for slavery is in order, but the wording is in dispute. The House favors the broader statement, but Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, Richmond Democrat, says that it improperly dilutes the focus on slavery. The issue likely is headed to a conference committee.

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