RICHMOND, Va. (AP) Forget about any significant new funding for transportation until at least 2008 — and then only if traffic-weary voters take out their road rage on anti-tax Republican legislators in next year’s elections, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said.
The day after the General Assembly ended nearly nine months of wrangling over transportation funding by doing nothing, Kaine acknowledged that resuming the fight in the election-year session that begins in January would be pointless.
“My sense is, unless there would be a real parting of the clouds, a major effort in ’07 for transportation revenue is a low likelihood because of the elections and this is fresh in folks’ mind,” Kaine said.
All 140 seats in the General Assembly will be on the ballot in November 2007. The Democratic governor said he will campaign “with gusto” against House GOP leaders who steadfastly opposed higher taxes and “user fees” to pay for highway and transit projects.
“I do think the ’07 election will put a dynamic in place that will likely improve our ability to tackle this,” Kaine said.
Kaine has no quarrel with the Senate, controlled by GOP moderates who share his desire to raise taxes. In 2004, the Senate and then-Gov. Mark R. Warner pushed through a $1.4 billion tax increase with the help of a small group of GOP delegates who defied their leadership.
House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, managed to prevent a similar revolt on the transportation funding issue. Tax and fee increases favored by Kaine and the Senate hit a dead end in the House.
A few members of the House GOP caucus worked for a compromise bill that would have raised some fees, but fellow Republicans shot it down in committee during the unfruitful two-day special session that ended Sept. 28.
“If the House leadership will kill their own members’ compromise bills, they’re not going to change their mind anytime soon,” Kaine said.
Legislators recognize that the debate over higher taxes for transportation will be a major theme of next year’s elections.
“You will have one side arguing the legislature did not swallow the toad and pass tax increases and the other side saying the toad was too big to swallow because we’re experiencing this unprecedented growth in our budget and we have surpluses, so why should we raise taxes,” said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr., R-Fairfax and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Callahan’s proposed $1.5 billion bond issue for highway construction was the centerpiece of a $2.4 billion House package, which also included general fund dollars that otherwise would be spent on schools, law enforcement and other priorities.
Kaine said roads and rail are as important as those general fund services, “but there has been a wisdom to Virginia’s budgeting philosophy” of financing transportation separately with gasoline taxes, tolls and other revenues generated solely by users of the system.
That’s the same argument senators made when they rejected the House package.
Republican delegates countered that while Virginians want transportation improvements, they believe the state has plenty of money without digging deeper into their pockets. Some pointed to the voters’ rejection of sales tax increases for transportation projects in northern Virginia and Hampton Roads four years ago and polls showing little public support for higher taxes.
“An agenda for progress in transportation has again been thwarted by those who absolutely insist Virginians pay higher taxes,” Howell said. “An opportunity to achieve real results has been squandered because of the continued insistence by some that Virginians are not paying enough and the financial burden on their families needs to be increased.”
Kaine said legislators should have the backbone to raise taxes anyway.
“As a leader you have to decide, ’Am I going to wait for a poll to give me permission to do something or am I going to try to solve the problem?’ I think Virginians want problem-solvers,” he said.