- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2007

RICHMOND Gov. Timothy M. Kaine voiced strong reservations yesterday about the potential of a new horse betting game the Senate has approved on claims it could raise as much as $350 million for transportation projects.

“I think the estimates are who knows. I’ve talked to my budget folks and they just say they really have no way of knowing,” Mr. Kaine told reporters in an impromptu interview.

The Senate gave final passage Tuesday to a bill that would allow the state’s lone horse track, Colonial Downs in New Kent County, and off-track betting parlors to use machines that allow betting on actual past races.

Wagerers would know only basic data about the horses, but not their names or when or where the race was run until the bets are placed.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., said legal authority exists to operate the games, and that his bill would only harness a share of the revenues it would generate for new roads, rails and transit in Virginia.

Legislation to generate the first substantial new funding for transportation in a generation is the central issue of the 2007 General Assembly as all 140 House and Senate seats are up for election in November.

The issue is particularly volatile for lawmakers from the state’s two most populous regions Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads where drivers endure long commutes and clogged highways.

Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, was skeptical that the racing game’s revenues were reliable enough to become part of the funding foundation for a transportation plan.

The governor said he understands that the estimated $350 million yield from the games is based on an assumption that 11,000 of the machines, which resemble automated teller machine consoles, could be put in existing Virginia off-track betting facilities.

“You know, I’m not sure that really will be possible,” Mr. Kaine said. “So, I have some significant concerns about the estimate.”

The only comprehensive transportation legislation in place now is a fragile accord put together by House and Senate Republicans who spent nearly nine months in a futile dispute over how to raise new road revenues last year. It would pull $250 million from the state general fund annually, boost car registration fees by $10 a year, raise the tax on diesel fuel by 1.5 cents per gallon, direct one-third of the tax on car insurance premiums to transportation and allow for $2 billion in state-backed bonds.

A rival Senate plan that included many of the same elements but would have added a 5 percent sales tax on gasoline and limited general fund use to $66 million a year was withdrawn by its sponsor Tuesday.

The House-passed plan as it exists face strouble in the Senate. An almost identical Senate version was killed last week in the Senate Finance Committee, with Democrats aligned in opposition to it.

“It’s time to stop worrying about what the House has to have in a plan and start worrying about what the Senate has to have,” Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax County Democrat, said after yesterday’s Senate session.

With the House-passed plan now advancing to the Senate, some senators were looking to Mr. Kaine to step in and help mediate an agreement within the Republican-dominated legislature.

“I believe the best way to fund transportation is off transportation user fees. It would be better to find funding that way than, you know, cutting into general fund priorities,” Mr. Kaine said.

“But the plan I really prefer is one that says, just kind of like we’ve always done, let’s let users of the transportation system pay for improvements to the system, and that will be what I’ll continue to explore as I talk to the senators,” Mr. Kaine said.

Mr. Kaine’s role becomes more pivotal as legislators head toward their scheduled Feb. 24 adjournment.

Should the House-passed Republican compromise fail in the Senate, Mr. Kaine would have to send down a carefully negotiated transportation bill of his own to prevent the issue from failing again this year.

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