- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2007

RICHMOND — A transportation package that House Republicans devised won overwhelming passage yesterday as a rival Senate measure that would have imposed a new gasoline sales tax was killed by its sponsor.

The House voted 61-37 for a fragile compromise between moderate Senate Republicans and conservative anti-tax delegates. The measure includes a small diesel fuel tax increase, a $10 annual increase in car registration fees and sharply higher penalties for abusive drivers.

That leaves the House bill as the only surviving legislation to provide for the first substantial funding reform in 21 years for new roads, rails and transit in an election-year General Assembly session dominated by the politically charged issue.

Earlier, at the start of a frantic marathon floor session, Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. asked that his transportation bill, endorsed by the Senate Finance Committee last week, be returned to the committee. Yesterday was the deadline for the bill to clear the Senate.

The legislation had sharply split Senate Republican leaders, as some supported Mr. Potts’ bill and some high-ranking senators joined House Republicans in backing a rival transportation plan introduced last month.

In the House, Democrats argued that the compromise would harm core state spending priorities such as public schools; health care for the poor, aged and disabled; and public safety by drawing at least $250 million annually from the general operating fund.

“So, while we’re not only raiding the general fund, but also I have concerns about the future fiscal health of the commonwealth,” said Delegate Brian J. Moran of Alexandria, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. He warned that the state could be looking at a structural budget imbalance approaching $800 million from diverting the general fund money to transportation.

At that point, Delegate Chris B. Saxman, Staunton Republican, interrupted Mr. Moran, asking him about $3 million that Mr. Moran inserted into the budget as an incentive to attract a film studio to Big Stone Gap to shoot a major movie.

“That is, I think, a wonderful economic development program,” Mr. Moran said as the chamber burst into laughter. “I think bringing that movie to Southwest Virginia would create jobs and bring the nation … to see just how beautiful the area, the great Southwest, is.”

Delegate Timothy D. Hugo, Fairfax County Republican, dismissed concerns about raids on funds for schools, police and other state responsibilities.

“Look at what it means for general funds. Before: 19 percent increase, [kindergarten] through 12. After this bill passes, 19 percent increase, K through 12. Before the bill, 22 percent increase for higher education. After … the bill passes, what’s going to happen? Twenty-two percent increase,” Mr. Hugo said.

The House plan as passed, however, makes no change in a proposal that allows Northern Virginia localities to raise funds to be spent only in their traffic-choked region for transportation projects. But it makes two changes to a corresponding regional proposal for Hampton Roads by halving a proposed commercial real estate tax from 30 cents per $100 of assessed value to 15 cents and adding a $5 nightly “transient occupancy fee” that would be part of hotel and motel bills.

The statewide portion of the plan also was amended to boost highway funding for Henrico County.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, said he hopes there is room to negotiate a consensus before the scheduled Feb. 24 adjournment.

Passage had not been a sure thing in the House, where several conservatives had grumbled about the higher fees and marginal tax boost on diesel fuel. Six Republicans voted against it, but eight Democrats voted yes with the Republican majority.

In the Senate, Mr. Potts was aware that his bill faced a procedural threat that could sink it or, at best, leave it hobbled and the usually clubby Senate deeply riven after a bitter floor battle. He also was aware that the gasoline sales tax was doomed in the House and had no support from Mr. Kaine.

The bill, hastily piggybacked onto an existing Potts road-funding measure, cleared a divided Finance Committee on Thursday, hours ahead of a deadline for the committee to act. Because the original bill was radically changed, it faced a serious parliamentary battle over whether the amendments were germane to its initial purpose.

“I am sorry that the germaneness issue clouds the bigger issue of solving the worst transportation crisis in America,” Mr. Potts said in a somber floor speech.

The strain the transportation issue had caused in the Senate was clear.

“Many times in this body, we’ve had ideological differences, and at times it has been contentious,” Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., the chief Senate backer of the Republican compromise, told his colleagues. The transportation dispute, he said, “has been divisive amongst some of those coalitions and [the] collegiality that existed, and it has been both politically and personally strenuous on many of us.”

• Slavery resolution

The Senate yesterday, without dissent, passed a resolution “acknowledging with contrition” the state’s role in slavery.

The resolution, sponsored by Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, Richmond Democrat, was one of several uncontested measures passed in a bloc.

The House of Delegates last week passed another version of the resolution expressing the General Assembly’s “profound regret” for slavery as well as “the historic wrongs visited upon native peoples” and other forms of cultural or racial bias. The competing versions likely will go to a conference committee of three members from each chamber for differences to be worked out.

Last month, Delegate Frank D. Hargrove Sr., Hanover Republican, angered black leaders when he said blacks “should get over” slavery. Mr. Hargrove later voted for the resolution in committee, saying it expressed regret without apologizing.

• Photo red

The House approved legislation to allow localities statewide to use photo systems to catch people who run traffic lights.

The bill passed 63-35 a day after amendments were added to give drivers an extra fraction of a second to get through the light and to make the images the systems record off-limits as evidence in lawsuits arising from traffic accidents.

Pilot programs allowing so-called photo-red enforcement in several Northern Virginia localities and Virginia Beach expired July 1, 2005. Efforts to extend the program statewide have failed over the years.

Vehicles that run red lights are photographed and $50 fines are mailed to the address that corresponds with the car’s license plate. People who receive the citations in the mail could sign an affidavit that the car belongs to someone else or that the registered owner was not driving the vehicle shown in the photo.

• Abortion bills

Bills to further restrict abortion and to protect unborn babies won passage in the House yesterday.

A woman faces up to 10 years in prison for causing her own miscarriage under a bill sponsored by Delegate Dwight Clinton Jones, Richmond Democrat, that passed 72-25. The legislation does not include the so-called morning-after pill, which can be taken after sexual intercourse to prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb.

Another bill, sponsored by Delegate R. Steven Landes, Augusta Republican, would allow a person other than the mother who causes a miscarriage to be charged with involuntary manslaughter. That bill passed 90-7.

Two bills placing more restrictions on abortion also passed, but such legislation often faces an uphill battle in the more centrist Senate.

Doctors would have to offer to anesthetize an unborn baby before performing an abortion and to allow the woman to view an ultrasound of the unborn baby before an abortion. The anesthesia bill, sponsored by Delegate Ben L. Cline, Richmond Republican, passed on a 69-29 vote. Delegate Kathy J. Byron’s bill to offer the ultrasound passed 60-38.

• Self-defense

Virginians would be allowed to use deadly force against a threatening intruder under a bill that passed the House on a 95-4 vote.

The measure would write into the Virginia code the common-law theory of self-defense. It allows a person to use any degree of physical force, including deadly force, and be immune from liability for the injuries or death of the intruder.

• Amber Alert

The House passed legislation to expand the state’s Amber Alert program to include all high school students.

The bill, which passed on a 91-6 vote, is inspired by the slaying of 18-year-old Allen “Chip” Ellis of Midlothian. The state’s Amber Alert system covers those younger than 17, so authorities weren’t able to issue the media alerts after Mr. Ellis disappeared in May.

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