- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2007

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine promised voters in 2005 that if elected he would make fixing transportation problems a top priority.

Now in the second year of a four-year term, Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, is as close as he ever has been — and perhaps ever will be — to delivering a transportation fix and polishing his legacy.

“Since I said transportation is going to be one of the things I’ll be measured by at the end of my term as governor, people will say, ‘Hey what did we do about transportation?’ ” Mr. Kaine told The Washington Times last week. “I want to make this thing work right.”

The Republican-controlled General Assembly last month narrowly passed a transportation bill that relies on long-term borrowing, the state surplus and controversial regional taxing authorities in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.

Mr. Kaine has until midnight to offer the legislature his revisions, which could make or break the fragile deal.

Residents in those regions have implored Mr. Kaine and other lawmakers to help fix the gridlock that is largely the result of too few road-improvement and construction projects to keep pace with the rapid growth.

State Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican, said the governor should not let this opportunity slip by because he may not get another one like it.

“I can honestly tell you that there is no way I can get the [House Republican] Caucus to do this again,” said Mr. Albo, who helped negotiate the bill. “I literally begged people in this caucus to do this. I could not get these southern Virginia guys to do this again.”

In the past, Republican lawmakers in the southern part of the state and other rural regions have hesitated to raise new taxes or fees for roads when they have little benefit for their constituents.

However, Republicans came into the legislative session eager for a victory after Sen. George Allen’s re-election loss in November and two consecutive gubernatorial defeats. Party leaders, including Attorney General Bob McDonnell, pushed a transportation deal that appeased the anti-tax House members and Senate moderates — the sides that had battled for years over the best way to fund road projects.

The long-awaited agreement shifted the political pressure onto Mr. Kaine and will, at the very least, give Republicans something to show voters when all 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for election in the fall.

That, combined with the recent retirement announcements of some of the governor’s closest Republican allies in the Senate, has political observers saying Mr. Kaine will likely face a more hostile environment during the final two years of his administration.

“The General Assembly has set this up beautifully to blame the governor if nothing happens this year,” said former Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, a Republican who lost to Mr. Kaine in the 2005 election. “If I were him, I’d be Clintonesque. I’d sign the bill, hold a press conference and take credit for it.”

Mr. Kaine said he will instead offer a number of changes, which the General Assembly will consider during a one-day session April 4.

If Republicans reject his revisions, Mr. Kaine has said he would consider vetoing the bill, a move that likely would make for an ugly campaign season.

Mr. Albo said Mr. Kaine and Republican leaders last week made some progress behind closed doors — most notably on the controversial elements of the regional taxing bodies.

However, Mr. Kaine continued to disagree with the General Assembly’s push to borrow up to $2.5 billion then repay the debt with money from the general operating fund — the state’s primary checkbook. The governor contends that if the economy takes a downturn, transportation would compete for funding with such core services as schools, police and health care.

The governor would rather repay the bonds with an earmarked source of new revenue, possibly an increase in vehicle-registration fees.

Republicans have rebuked Mr. Kaine’s position.

“While these transfers will mean that there will be less general fund revenue in 2008 than would otherwise have been the case, state spending on general fund programs will continue to increase because Virginia’s economy continues to grow,” Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican, said Wednesday in an op-ed column for The Washington Times.

Mr. Kaine can thank his predecessor, Mark R. Warner, for a new sense of Republican togetherness that has prevented him from delivering a transportation bill that relies on higher statewide taxes.

In 2004 Mr. Warner earned a national reputation as a moderate who could work across the partisan divide after Republican leaders in the Senate helped him steer a $1.38 billion tax increase through the legislature.

Though conservatives maintain the growing economy made the increase unnecessary, Mr. Warner left office as one of the most popular governors in state history and a possible presidential contender.

Since Mr. Warner achieved success, House Republicans — most of whom were elected on pledges to fight higher taxes — have worked to become more unified and stop a potential Democratic resurgence in Virginia.

This year, Mr. Warner’s group of maverick Republicans — led by Sen. John H. Chichester of Stafford — fell apart, Republicans passed the transportation bill and House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford Republican, assumed the role as the most powerful Republican in the General Assembly.

Mr. Kilgore said he suspects Mr. Kaine was “blindsided” when the Senate agreed with the transportation plan and failed to side with him.

Now, Mr. Kaine must appease House Republicans if he is to deliver on his campaign pledge and build his legacy.

“He is in a tough spot,” said Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat and former governor.

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