- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2008

RICHMOND — The General Assembly completed its unfinished legislative business yesterday, including the approval of a $1.5 billion bond for construction projects across Virginia.

However, lawmakers on neither the House nor Senate floor discussed transportation, which one lawmaker called the “big giant gorilla in the corner that no one is talking about.”

It was a striking contrast to the wave of floor speeches after the state Supreme Court ruled in February that the regional transportation taxes and fees imposed this year were unconstitutional. The taxes and fees were part of a transportation deal lawmakers passed last year that would have provided an estimated $300 million in additional funding for regional projects in Northern Virginia.

Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Steven D. Newman of Lynchburg said he doubts lawmakers are close to an alternative plan. “No, I’m somewhat concerned about the lack of a sense of urgency,” he said. “It is a situation where there are some who think it is a better election issue in 2009 than to solve it when we should.”

Delegate Jeffrey M. Frederick, Prince William Republican, said, “I’m not optimistic.”

During the Assembly’s annual veto session, lawmakers considered the 41 amendments Gov. Tim Kaine made to the two-year, $76 billion budget passed earlier this year.

Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, withdrew an amendment that would have cut Medicaid costs by replacing brand-name behavioral medication with generic drugs.

The governor had hoped the change would yield $1.5 million in savings but was swayed by the criticism of mental-health advocates.

Lawmakers passed $1.4 billion for renovations and construction at colleges and universities, government buildings and state parks.

House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford County Republican, called the package “the largest ever capital infusion for our academic institutions” and said the measure “is especially great news for students, tuition-paying families and businesses that benefit from university research and wise investments in the knowledge-based economy of the future.”

Mr. Kaine has not scheduled a special session dedicated to transportation, but spokesman Gordon Hickey said it likely would be in the spring.

In town hall meetings across the state, the governor has reiterated his desire to increase the tax on vehicle sales, from 3 percent to 5 percent. He has pushed for such an increase since 2006.

Mr. Newman yesterday suggested Republicans might consider a smaller increase in the vehicle sales tax if the governor couples it with a tax credit for trade-ins.

Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, a Democrat, has complicated the debate by demanding that a transportation deal have regional fixes for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads as well as a new statewide revenue stream to cover a shortfall in the road maintenance budget.

Northern Virginia Republicans oppose the idea, saying they are sick of seeing a chunk of the tax revenue raised in their districts being funneled into other regions.

“I’m not voting for a bill that sends money to southern Virginia so I have the right to tax myself,” said Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican.

“We are kind of stuck right now. Dick wants a statewide fix,” he said.

Mr. Saslaw said the discussions are continuing.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we can get something done in a few months,” he said. “That’s about it for now. There is a variety of stuff being discussed.”

Lawmakers also were expected to reach agreement on judicial appointments last night.

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