Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Two years ago, it was the Virginia state Senate and Gov. Mark Warner who won the budget battle. This year, it is the House of Delegates’ turn to enjoy a political victory — at least until next year’s elections — now that the Senate has backed off its push to raise taxes for long-term transportation improvements.

“It is a political victory because Governor Warner ate their lunch two years ago, and very few people expected the governor to prevail,” said Mark Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University. “Thus, they were doubly determined to have a unified front, and in that they succeeded.

“The downside is as we move into the 2007 election and voters are frustrated with the lack of any substantial initiative on transportation many of the those incumbents who stood firm could get the blame,” Mr. Rozell said.

On Tuesday, the Senate yielded to the House of Delegates’ demand to hold the line on taxes, postpone transportation talks until later this year, and work on getting the rest of the state budget in place by the end of the fiscal year June 30.

House Republicans in congested areas could pay a “high political price in the long run,” said Toni-Michelle Travis, associate professor of government at George Mason University. “It will be costly in the sense that Northern Virginia will now target officials that would not put more money into transportation, and therefore [they could] lose their elections.”

Delegate Brian J. Moran of Alexandria, the House Democratic Caucus chairman, said, “It will not be beneath us to bring it to the attention of voters [the names of Republican House members who] refuse to take action toward transportation solutions.

“The voters will hold them responsible for the hours and hours they spend in gridlock, unless we take substantial action, and to date they have refused to do so,” he said.

The House is expected to take up the revised Senate plan today — day 135 of the longest session in state history — and send it to the House and Senate budget negotiators who must hash out a spending agreement.

“Transportation…will remain a critical issue, regardless of what shape the final budget agreement ultimately takes,” said House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford Republican.

The more centrist Senate wanted to raise an additional $1 billion a year for transportation improvements across the state through increased taxes and fees. The House was against any new taxes. It wanted to free up about $1 billion in additional dollars for transportation in the two-year budget through bonds, and money from the state’s projected $1.4 billion surplus for projects primarily in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, the state’s most congested regions.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat who shares the Senate’s long-term funding goal, called a special session after the Republican-controlled General Assembly failed to approve a budget during its regular 60-day session that ended in March.

He has had held more than 20 town hall meetings across the state to discuss transportation and his political action committee spent more than $300,000 lobbying for public and legislative support.

Before Tuesday, Republican leaders in the House repeatedly chastised the Senate for holding the budget hostage by embedding tax increases in its spending bill — a move they said violated the state constitution.

Meanwhile, the Senate offered up a smorgasbord of transportation plans aimed at generating new money for long-term road improvements across the state and separate regional plans for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

The Senate’s new budget proposal includes a $339 million contingency fund that can be used only for transportation if lawmakers agree to a statewide transportation plan by Nov. 1 that has a reliable source of money. Otherwise, the $339 million would go toward school and building construction and tax relief.

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