Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Virginia Republicans acknowledged yesterday that closed-door discussions are inching forward the transportation stalemate in Richmond, but talk of a compromise or movement away from their no-tax pledges is premature.

“You could have the whole world singing ‘Kumbaya’ in a couple of days, or fighting. I have no idea,” said Delegate Jeffrey M. Frederick, Prince William County Republican. “If there is one thing that I learned in politics is everything is unpredictable.”

House and Senate Republican leaders have met every day since the General Assembly convened last week, trying to find a consensus that could appeal to the anti-tax House Republicans and the Senate’s desire to have a long-term revenue source for roads and mass transit projects statewide.

Those familiar with the closed-door discussions said the leaders are working on a package that provides Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads — two of the state’s most congested areas — the power to raise certain taxes and fees for transportation, and also generates new money for statewide transportation projects.

Last year, the Republican-controlled General Assembly debated for nine months over the best way to address road upgrades without coming up with a solution.

With all 140 members of the General Assembly up for re-election this fall, some state and national Republicans, including Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, have said the party must get something done to avoid losing seats.

Yesterday rank-and-file lawmakers and political insiders said the mood at the General Assembly building in Richmond this week changes almost by the hour.

Delegate Chris B. Saxman said many lawmakers are asking one another: “What are you hearing?”

“I haven’t heard of any specifics being mentioned,” the Staunton Republican said. “It’s hard to tell what is going to be in a package.”

The idea that the transportation package could include tax increases fired up some conservatives, who said giving localities the ability to raise taxes is “insane.”

“How much more can you demoralize the base?” asked Robin DeJarnette, executive director of the Virginia Conservative Action PAC, a grass-roots political action committee. “I think it just puts the Republicans in a vulnerable position.”

Former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican who recently set up an presidential exploratory committee for 2008, said there is a looming misconception in Richmond that if “you are not for raising taxes, you are not for transportation.”

“That is not true,” he said.

The last time lawmakers proposed a major overhaul of the transportation system was in 2002, when voters in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads rejected by large margins a referendum to raise taxes for roads.

“How many times do taxpayers have to defeat a referendum?” Mrs. DeJarnette asked.

Still, many lawmakers and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, remain cautiously optimistic that something substantial could emerge from the ongoing discussions.

“For nine months last year there was very little productive conversation,” said Kevin Hall, the governor’s spokesman. “So the fact that the leadership in both the House and Senate are engaged in what appears to be an earnest effort is a very promising sign. The governor is hopeful that this is a serious enough effort involving the leadership that there may be some breakthrough.”

Delegate Thomas Davis Rust, Fairfax County Republican, said he hopes Republicans are interested in advancing a comprehensive package because they realize more than ever that Northern Virginia is an economic engine for the state.

“It does seem there is a lot more conversation in terms of transportation, and a lot more delegates seem to be interested in talking about it,” he said.

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