- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2007

RICHMOND — A Republican-written transportation package passed the General Assemblyyesterday, narrowly winning passage in a pivotal Senate vote and overwhelmingly in the House in the 2007 General Assembly’s final hours.

The Senate approved the conference report and the $2.5 billion in borrowing it authorizes by 2016 on a 21-18 vote.

Earlier, the House passed the measure 64-34.

The Senate vote on the legislative session’s dominant issue was decisive, sending Gov. Timothy M. Kaine a roads, rails and transit package that he said has “huge problems” and faces “significant surgery.”

It was a pivotal political moment for many senators, who face voters in heavily populated Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads restive over chronic highway gridlock and commutes that stretch into hours daily.

The measure survived the Senate despite solid opposition by minority Democrats. Though all 21 votes for the measure were from Republicans, some of them spoke derisively of it even as they urged its passage, hoping Mr. Kaine’s amendments would dramatically improve it.

“It’s so bad, it’s so perverted that we probably just ought to vote [for] it to get it out of here in hopes that somebody can fix it later,” said Sen. John Watkins, Powhatan Republican, who voted for it.

“I think it will die on its own because it’s inoperable,” he said.

Sen. Thomas K. Norment, the Senate patron, also urged his colleagues to leave the legislation for Mr. Kaine to amend and improve “like a fine cosmetic surgeon.”

Critics in the House and Senate argued that the $2.5 billion in bonds the bill authorizes for statewide transportation projects does too little to address a backlog of transportation projects that exceeds $100 billion.

“What we have before us is, at best, a very, very temporary measure,” said Delegate Vivian E. Watts, who was the state’s transportation secretary in the late 1980s.

“If this passes, please don’t lie to the voters that we have in any way fixed this problem,” said Mrs. Watts, Fairfax Democrat.

Retiring Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., Winchester Republican, called the plan “a miserable Band-Aid” and gleefully ridiculed anti-tax conservatives for supporting it, particularly regional packages for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads that will take millions of dollars more from Virginians under the guise of fees, not taxes.

“Let’s talk about this no-tax pledge they’ve signed. Here we are: Proposed sources — a local rental-car impact fee. Not a tax but a fee,” Mr. Potts sneered, drawing out the word fee as he turned and stared at conservatives he was targeting.

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

Last week, that coalition voted 23-17 to reject a House-passed plan transportation that included $2 billion in bonds but allocated $250 million directly to transportation projects.

“The plan that you have here today is even worse,” said Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw, because the new plan requires $170 million to about $184 million annually to service the $2.5 billion in debt.

“Have a bad year financially? Not a big deal, I guess. You just don’t write that check into the [highway] maintenance fund. Well, this one’s changed a little,” he said.

“Well, if you have a bad year … guess what: You don’t have the option of not making that payment unless you want your AAA [perfect] bond rating to go to junk-bond status,” said Mr. Saslaw, who initially did not vote but submitted a vote later.

Under the bill passed yesterday, the bonds — which would be issued in increments of no more than $300 million a year — would be paid with revenues from the state tax paid by people who record wills, land deeds and lawsuits in courts. The debt-service drain would peak at about $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.

On Friday, Mr. Kaine said redirecting those general fund sources to transportation would force him to heavily amend the measure. Legislators would have the opportunity to accept or reject his alterations when they return for a one-day session. If they reject them, Mr. Kaine would still have the option of vetoing the measure.

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