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Transit Tops Agenda In Va. Budget Talks

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page C06

RICHMOND -- House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) was cordial but blunt with the small group of business leaders and transportation advocates he invited to his office Tuesday. You fought for tax increases last year, he said. Now you have to fight for transportation.

If you don't, and the Senate kills my transportation proposals, don't expect me to lift a finger for roads or transit next year, Howell indicated, according to several participants in the meeting.

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House and Senate negotiators begin talks today on updating Virginia's two-year, $60 billion budget. Their chief task: reaching a compromise on how much of the state's $1.2 billion surplus to spend on improving the road and transit network.

Six House negotiators will fight for passage of Howell's plan to invest $1 billion now with a promise to spend $400 million more annually. The speaker has spent weeks courting the business community to back that plan as the best way to improve transportation without raising taxes.

In a letter to Howell after the Tuesday meeting, Jackson E. Reasor, chairman of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, applauded the House plan for its "initiative and creativity."

But the House approach conflicts sharply with that of the Republican-controlled Senate, where the leadership has made it clear it prefers waiting until next year to fight for a much larger transportation plan that could include substantial tax increases.

Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Stafford), chairman of the Finance Committee, said last week, "We must be prepared to come back next year, ready to take the bold actions to address transportation for the long haul."

Chichester and the four other Senate negotiators will push for a more modest transportation plan that would invest $670 million this year but would provide little in the way of a continuing new commitment to transportation improvements. They also are promoting a year-long study of how the state finances road and rail construction.

The 11 negotiators plan to shuttle between the ninth and tenth floors of the General Assembly Building. If history proves any guide, their discussions over the next several days -- known as the budget conference -- will involve some personality conflicts, disagreements about minor budget items and basic differences about the role of government.

"Everyone gets a commitment to their ideas," said Sen. Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico). "There's a certain emphasis on 'let's compromise, but let's do it my way.' That's not the way compromise gets worked out."

But unlike last year, when lawmakers said they always expected that differences about raising taxes would lead to a budget deadlock, delegates and senators said last week that they are optimistic about a timely end to this year's session.

"Any time you have any negotiations, corporate negotiations, you are going to have some personality conflicts," Howell said. "We always work through it."

In addition to disagreements about transportation, the negotiators must work out differences about Chesapeake Bay cleanup, arts funding and health care spending. The senators and delegates also disagree about how to increase public confidence in the state's finances.

House leaders are pushing a constitutional amendment that would prohibit lawmakers from withdrawing money from the transportation trust fund for anything other than transportation. Senators have countered with a proposal that would establish a "two-way lock" to protect the state's general fund, which pays for health care, education, police and state universities.

In a letter to House Appropriations Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), Chichester wrote that "neither the transportation trust fund nor the general fund will ever accomplish their purposes by continually following the tired practice of robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) met with the budget negotiators Thursday and urged them not to spend the one-time surplus on continuing programs that will cost the state for years to come. Staff writers Chris L. Jenkins and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.


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