No Deal in Sight for Va. Legislature’s Roads Session

Tue June 17, 2008 - Southeast Edition
Bob Lewis - AP POLITICAL WRITER



RICHMOND, Va. (AP) The June 23 legislative session for new transportation funding will go on, even though there is no glimmer of a deal between Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine and a Republican-run House on statewide taxes to pay for it.

Without progress, Virginia will see a summer legislative impasse over hundreds of millions of dollars for highway needs for the second time since 2006.

“We’re not the ones offering these half-baked plans,” Del. M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said in a June 4 news conference with House GOP leaders.

Kaine toured the state promoting his nearly $1 billion-a-year tax package to fund highway maintenance and new projects in northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Kaine proposed a 1 percent boost in the tax on car sales, an increase in the tax paid by people selling their homes and a $10 annual increase in the cost of registering automobiles. The car titling tax and the registration fee increase are dedicated solely to upkeep for the state’s 58,000 mi. (93,300 km) of roads and bridges, and receipts from the grantor’s tax on home sales would pay for rail and mass transit initiatives.

Speaker William J. Howell, House Republican Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Cox and Del. Phillip Hamilton called an impromptu news conference to emphatically dismiss prospects of a statewide tax boost and question Kaine’s motives for proposing it.

Howell said Kaine believes that offering House Republicans an unpalatable menu of new taxes for transportation plays well for Democrats in their effort to gain the six seats they need to win a House majority in the 2009 elections.

“The governor has said this is a win-win for him,” said Howell, R-Stafford.

The Kaine administration has warned that maintenance costs are exceeding available funds, forcing the state to redirect cash for new road projects into mending the existing web of deteriorating roads and bridges. In his series of town hall-style forums, Kaine said the shortfall, or “maintenance deficit,” will reach about $375 million this year. He noted that most of the state’s bridges are 40 years old or more, and cited the Minneapolis bridge collapse last August that killed 13 people.

Kaine said ending the maintenance deficit is a precondition for any legislation passed this year, but has told lawmakers it doesn’t have to be the exact blend of taxes and fees he has prescribed.

Cox contends Kaine is exaggerating both the shortfall and the dangers. House Republicans insist on enacting only regional funding packages for the state’s two most congested and urban regions and going home, something Kaine has said he will not accept.

“He puts a statewide [tax] increase out there he knows is going to get defeated,” Cox said.

Kaine spokeswoman Delacey Skinner said suggestions suggesting duplicity by the governor was ridiculous and disrespectful.

“Nobody proposes raising taxes because it’s fun. It’s not a plausible argument. The reason elected officials propose tax increases is there is a genuine problem,” Skinner said.

“On the Republican side, what we’ve seen in the House time and time again is a refusal to take this process seriously,” she said.

Griffith said Republicans aren’t the only ones who have not embraced Kaine’s proposal. He noted that Kaine’s legislation has yet to a House or Senate sponsor.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Brian J. Moran of Alexandria said negotiations were continuing between his caucus, Kaine and House Republicans in hopes of forging a compromise.

In the Senate, Democrats agree with the need but differ with Kaine on how to pay for it. Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax and the retired owner of a chain of service stations, has advocated an incremental gasoline tax increase.

“We will have our own package,” Saslaw said.

Saslaw and Senate Democratic Caucus leader Mary Margaret Whipple of Arlington said that by denying the need for statewide maintenance money, House Republicans risk isolating themselves.

“Half of the bridges in this state could fall in and they’d still be saying we don’t need to do something,” Saslaw said.