TO HEAR IT from the anti-tax Virginia Republicans still bridling over increases enacted by the General Assembly this year, you'd think that the Old Dominion had just come up with the winning Powerball ticket. Thanks to an economic uptick, the state's tax revenue topped projections by $323.8 million. That's a tidy sum but hardly a bonanza in a two-year state budget of $57.7 billion, a budget that underfunds transportation and other services.
In determining what to do with the $323.8 million, Mr. Warner prudently stated that he would not initiate new programs but would direct most of the money into the rainy-day fund depleted by irresponsible budgeting under his immediate predecessor, Gov. James S. Gilmore III. About $24 million will go to transportation, which legislators left financially high and dry this year. And Mr. Warner will return some of the money to taxpayers by accelerating an income tax exemption of $100, or up to $400 a year for families of four. This break had been scheduled for Jan. 1, 2006, but will go into effect this coming January, costing $28 million.
All of this leaves the Virginia Transportation Trust Fund still starved for cash. The six-year plan that went into effect in July has only about $22 million for new construction over the next six years, though the Virginia Department of Transportation estimates that it needs $600 million. With House elections next year, some lawmakers might not be eager to talk about this gap. But those who have forthrightly discussed the state's plight should continue their efforts in the coming session. Virginia operates one of the nation's largest state highway systems, has one of the lowest gasoline tax rates (17.5 cents a gallon, unchanged since 1987) and -- thanks in part to Mr. Gilmore's borrowing against the future -- pays debt service costs that could rise to 20 percent of construction by 2009. If the governor and the legislature don't get moving, the day will come when hardly anyone in Virginia will.