- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2007

Virginia lawmakers say the state’s beleaguered transportation system will dominate the upcoming legislative session and play a major role in the coming elections, when all 140 seats in the General Assembly will be up for grabs.

“Unlike the years in the past, there pretty much is going to be one issue, which is transportation,” said Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax County Republican. “That is pretty much it.”

Delegate Brian J. Moran, House Democratic Caucus chairman, called transportation the “overwhelming issue.”

“It’s imperative we show not only a recognition of the problem, but some concrete steps toward addressing the problem,” said Mr. Moran, Alexandria Democrat.

The 45-day session is scheduled to start tomorrow when lawmakers travel to Jamestown to observe the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in America.

Vice President Dick Cheney will address the General Assembly in an afternoon commemoration program, and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, will deliver his State of the Commonwealth address tomorrow night.

The new session gives Mr. Kaine and the legislature another shot at improving the state’s roads and mass-transit system.

Last year, anti-tax House Republicans balked at the combined efforts of Mr. Kaine, House Democrats and Senate Republicans to increase taxes, fees and fines for transportation.

The governor last week announced a $1 billion-a-year transportation proposal, with money from vehicle sales tax, registration fees and fines. But House Republican leaders said they remain opposed to any plan that includes statewide tax increases.

Political observers and lawmakers agree that elected officials from the most traffic-choked areas of the state — Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads — have the most to lose or gain from the transportation debate.

“I can’t quantify it, but it is going to affect every contested election in Northern Virginia and southeastern Virginia,” said Sen. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, Fairfax County Republican.

Some Democrats and Republicans say regional self-help plans, which give local governments the authority to raise certain fees or collect tolls, are an easier sell because, unlike statewide tax increases, they ensure the money raised in one region of the state stays there.

“All along, I have said that it is nonnegotiable, that all the money we pay has to stay in Northern Virginia,” Mr. Albo said.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith said House Republicans will work on a compromise with the governor, House Democrats and the Senate, but they intend to stick to their conservative principles.

“I think it certainly would help Republicans if we have movement,” said Mr. Griffith, Salem Republican. “At the same time, it hurts Republicans if we do something that is counter to what our base wants. We need to thread the needle.”

Finding a bipartisan agreement will be difficult because the lack of a consensus would allow Democrats to portray Republicans in the 2007 elections as incompetent leaders.

Delegate Chris B. Saxman, Staunton Republican, said the Senate, which is elected every four years, may be more likely to compromise with the demands of the House because they also will face the wrath of voters if nothing is done.

“The key is, it is the beginning of an election year for the Senate,” he said. “They are under the gun now, and there is an urgency that most of them won’t have in” 2009.

Overall, lawmakers have filed more than 4,000 bills.

Aside from the transportation issues, the General Assembly will consider tightening the state’s eminent-domain laws, giving local and state police the power to arrest illegal aliens, toughening punishments for sexual offenders, and revisiting the state’s electric-deregulation laws.

Mr. Kaine also is negotiating with lawmakers over a constitutional amendment that would allow governors to serve consecutive terms as of 2010, after he has left office. Virginia law limits governors to one term, but allows them to run again after sitting out for four years.

The General Assembly also will take up about $1 billion in budget amendments Mr. Kaine offered last month that include the state’s share of 3 percent pay raises for teachers, a $250 million bond package for upgrading wastewater-treatment plants across the Chesapeake Bay watershed and increasing the minimum income-tax filing threshold for the state’s poorest earners, which will remove 300,000 people from the tax rolls.

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