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Kaine: Special Road Funding Session Is On, Deal or Not

Mon May 05, 2008 - Southeast Edition

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) For the second time in two years, legislators will be called back to the Capitol for a special session on highway funding.

Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine committed himself to convene the special session, even though an accord on his demand for major highway upkeep and repair funding is improbable.

And if it ends in futility — as did the 2006 transportation session that extended into September — it will serve a defining political purpose, Kaine said.

“We’re either going to solve this problem or Virginians are going to know who stood in the way of a solution,” Kaine said.

The problem is the hundreds of millions of dollars a year that Kaine’s administration said is being leached from highway construction by the rocketing costs of highway maintenance.

By law, maintenance needs take priority over construction, so if money available to keep existing roads fixed is insufficient, cash appropriated for new roads is detoured to repaving, patching and so forth.

The governor wants a statewide levy to cover the overruns that the Virginia Department of Transportation estimates will approach $400 million next year and $600 million by 2014.

Among the ideas offered to cover the gap are boosts in the sales tax, the state’s 17.5-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax or the “titling tax” on car sales. Kaine prefers raising the titling tax from 3.5 percent to the rate applied to all other retail purchases, 5.5 percent, but won’t say what he will propose in the bill he sends to lawmakers.

Republicans in the House of Delegates want no part of any statewide tax increase.

“You’ve got the Democratic Party pushing taxes, and they can’t even agree on which tax they want,” said Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights.

“To me, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference because it’s hitting either gas, which people are struggling with, or it’s hitting sales, which is a very regressive tax, or it’s hitting the titling tax on an industry right now that is struggling,” said Cox, who has been involved in private discussions with Kaine and legislative Democratic leaders.

“I’m not soft-peddling this. I think it’s alarmist data and I think it’s basically trotting around the state in a dog-and-pony show,” Cox said.

Cox said he felt the administration’s maintenance deficit projections were deliberately inflated. He said the grim forecasts Kaine and Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer cite are extrapolations of today’s recessionary economy that don’t account for better times ahead.

When asked for comment about the claim, Kaine grinned and shook his head.

“The revenues are what they are and the projections are what they are, and they can’t point out a single thing about the projections that are wrong. These are the numbers that we’re seeing and that we’re likely to see,” he said.

Cox, House Speaker William J. Howell and other House GOP leaders want a special session only to reconstruct regional transportation funding authorities for Hampton Roads and northern Virginia. The Virginia Supreme Court unanimously ruled in February that regional authorities established by 2007’s transportation funding law were unconstitutional because unelected trustees would levy the taxes.

Just as House Republicans won’t abide a statewide tax increase, Kaine and Democratic House and Senate leaders find a regional-only option unacceptable.

“You just can’t leave the rest of the state out if you’re going to do this,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles J. Colgan, D-Prince William.

Colgan said Democratic senators, who hold 21 of the 40 seats, were unified in their demand for a statewide plan.

In the House, Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong couldn’t guarantee that all 45 Democratic delegates will vote for a statewide tax to fund maintenance, but said he was comfortable that most of them will.

“If you don’t fix the maintenance reserve you do two things. One, you totally ignore the needs of those of us [in rural Virginia] to get our roads fixed, and two, you cut almost in half the efforts you’re making in northern Virginia and Tidewater,” said Armstrong, D-Henry County.

If the June legislative session ends in a stalemate, it leaves Democrats and Republicans with a brand new political issue to take into 2009, an election year for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general and all 100 House seats.

Two years ago, when legislators failed to break an impasse over transportation funding, Democrats looked forward using it to win House and Senate seats, particularly in northern Virginia.

That galvanized House and Senate Republicans last year to put aside years of differences and assemble a patchwork of transportation funding measures. The 2007 package was Virginia’s first major highway money boost in 21 years, but enormous flaws soon became evident.

Del. Robert G. Marshall, a Republican who bitterly opposed the bill on grounds that the regional authorities were unconstitutional, filed a lawsuit that made the same argument and that resulted in the Supreme Court decision.

The 2007 law also included steep, punitive surcharges on bad drivers. Kaine noted that the fees — usually $1,000 to $3,000 on top of fines — could not effectively be collected from nonresidents, so he amended the measure to apply them only to Virginians. The result left voters outraged, and legislators hastily repealed the provision this winter.

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