- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2007

RICHMOND — Five days of closed-door bargaining by a dozen legislators yielded a proposal yesterday that would build new roads, rails and transit with $2.5 billion in bonds and pay the debt with existing taxes.

The Republican-authored package, facing a showdown vote on the final day of the legislative session today, drew the immediate scorn of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who said the bill has “huge problems.”

While Republicans called the measure “our last, best opportunity” to address this year’s most pressing and politically charged issue, Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, said the bill would face “significant surgery” or prompt him to submit legislation of his own.

“It’s taken a lot of work to get to this place where we are today,” House Speaker William J. Howell said.

“A lot of compromise, a lot of give-and-take, [there are] a lot of things about the plan that not everybody’s happy with,” said Mr. Howell, Stafford County Republican and the sponsor of the package. “But we’re here, and this is the last, best opportunity we have and I would be very disappointed if, on partisan lines or because of partisan reasons, the bill failed.”

But a deep partisan divide over the conference report was instantly clear.

“I can’t support this. This is worse than it was before,” Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw said.

What was previously presented to the Senate was killed on a 17-23 vote last week, and Mr. Saslaw of Fairfax said his 16 fellow Senate Democrats would never accept it.

“They need 21 votes” in the 40-member Senate. “They don’t have anybody from our caucus,” he said.

The report’s dominant funding feature is $2.5 billion in bonds to be issued through 2016 — $500 million more than the debt the earlier House-backed plan contemplated.

Gone is the direct diversion of $250 million annually from the state’s general fund, which pays for such central state obligations as public safety, schools, support for higher education and care for the elderly, indigent and disabled.

However, the bonds, which would be issued in increments of no more than $300 million a year, would be paid with revenue from the state tax paid by people who record wills, land deeds and lawsuits in courts. The debt service drain would peak at $184 million a year.

The plan also incorporates a third of the tax on car insurance premiums annually for transportation use.

Both the recordation tax and insurance premiums tax revenues are part of the general fund, and that’s what outraged the Senate’s Democrats, most of the House Democrats and Mr. Kaine. Mr. Kaine said the general fund drain is greater than the entire budget for the Virginia State Police.

Should the measure pass, Mr. Kaine said, “it will undergo some significant surgery. If they reject it, I have a bill prepared I’m ready to send down to make sure the legislature doesn’t get out of here without a commitment to fixing the transportation challenges we’re facing.”

He held out the prospect that lawmakers could miss their adjournment deadline in a bitter protracted dispute over transportation funding for the second year in a row. “I intend that we stay here until we finish it,” Mr. Kaine said, his jaw clenched.

Associated Press writer Larry O’Dell contributed to this story.


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