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Virginia General Assembly: Session Issues

Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Michael D. Shear was online Wednesday, March 23, at Noon ET to take your comments about the Virginia General Assembly, including the end of the session and the state's budget and transportation funding plus bills that have come up during the year such as the "droopy drawers" proposal, abortion bills, gay marriage amendments and the religious freedom debate.

A transcript follows.


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Mike Shear: Good afternoon and welcome from Richmond, where it's sunny before the expected snowstorm.

We've got three days left in the 2005 General Assembly session and it looks like the lawmakers will actually end on time this year. I'm happy to talk about the state budget, state politics or any of the thousands of bills that lawmakers considered during the past 42 days.

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Herndon, Va.: Why don't Va. state legislators give the money back to its rightful owners... the taxpayers??? The things our politicians spend money on is outrageous, and they act like the supply of funds is limitless.

Mike Shear: A good, hard question to start us off.

The state's economy is booming. More people are working and buying stuff that generates sales tax. As a result, the state has about $1.2 billion more to spend than they thought when they approved the budget last year.

There are more than a few lawmakers down here who believe the state should do just what you suggest -- give the money back. They were especially upset about last year's decision to increase sales and other taxes in light of the improving economy.

But others, including some who were against the tax increases, disagree that the spending is outrageous. They want to spend more on transportation projects, colleges, health care and schools. Its a never ending debate, and one that is likely to be a key part of this year's election for a new governor.

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Richmond, Va.: What is the likelyhood that the ban on gay marriages will actually become part of the Virginia constitution? I know it has to be passed in two consecutive GA's and then be submitted for referendum. Will it happen?

Mike Shear: Conventional wisdom down here says such a ban is indeed likely to become part of the state constitution. But that would seem to depend now on the popular sentiment. The General Assembly, as you point out, has passed the legislation needed to put it on the ballot. If they do so again next year, it will be put to the public for a vote in 2006.

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Sterling, Va.: Thanks for your time. Is Gov. Warner up for re-election this year?? Who else is up for re-election this year that was responsible for raising taxes too high, raising the toll on the toll road, and keeping the car tax? Where can I go online to find out who voted for what? It sounds like it's about time for the state government to get a raise.

Sorry about all the questions and again, thanks for your time.

washingtonpost.com: There's a wealth of bill information on the Virginia General Assembly Web site.

Mike Shear: Good politics question.

As soon as the General Assembly session is over, Virginia's election season begins. All 100 members of the House of Delegates are up for reelection this year, and Virginians will elect a new governor, lt. governor and attorney general.

Gov. Warner is not up for reelection. By constitution, governors in Virginia may not succeed themselves. The candidates for governor include former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore (R), Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine (D), and Warrenton Mayor George Fitch (R).

As for Warner, who knows? Maybe he'll run for Senate against George Allen next year. Or some say he could run for president in 2008.

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Arlington, Va.: The viciousness of the anti-gay legislation down in Richmond this year has me seriously considering leaving Virginia for the District. Is there any prospect that some of these right wing wackos will lose in November or is it just going to get worse?

Mike Shear: There have been a number of questions along these lines, so let me give this a shot.

Virginia's House of Delegates has several members who feel very strongly about this issue and are prolific bill-writers. In addition to the gay marriage amendment, the House passed legislation this year which would have banned gay Virignians from adopting children. That bill died in the Senate.

Longtime observers of Richmond politics do not see any reason to think that proponents of such legislation will slow down. But there are others who are motivated to defend the rights of gays and lesbians. As one example, the House now has Del. Adam Ebbin, the legislature's first openly gay member.

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Hartwood, Va.: There has been alot of talk regarding new transportation funding initiatives, but I haven't heard anyone address what amount of funding it would take to fully address Virginia's transportation needs. Does anyone know what it will take to fix Virginia's transportation problems?

Mike Shear: Finding a way to finance transportation has been one of the big issues this year, and few people think it's going to be solved this year.

Gov. Warner, House Republicans and Senate leaders all proposed spending some of the state's $1.2 billion surplus on transportation this year. It looks like they may end up compromising at about $850 million.

But no one down here thinks that solves the problem. Building bridges in Hampton Roads, interchanges and freeways in Northern Virginia, and extending rail to Dulles airport will cost many billions of dollars each. Some senators are expected to push for a major tax increase next year to help pay for some of these projects, but both of the major candidates for governor have indicated reluctance to raise taxes.

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Concerned in Va.: Don't you all think the Va. General Assembly should be spending their time and our tax dollars better? Why was there a need to discuss adding words to the Va. constitution (Article I Sec 16) that was written by Jefferson, Mason & Madison and no on has felt the need to alter for a few hundred years? Or take up the discussion of whether someone's pants are to baggie?

Mike Shear: I can assure you that most of the time lawmakers spend in committee down here is pretty dull. But there ARE those moments when debate turns to droopy drawers or a bill to allow spa's to serve wine while they're waxing one's legs. And when it does, some might say Virginia's lawmakers get the attention they deserve.

My favorite headline (alas, not from my own paper): An Embarrassment of Britches.

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Alexandria, Va.: Early in Mark Warner's term, the conventional wisdom (as reflected in the Holsworth/Sabatos/etc. quoted by the Post) was that the governor was kind of a patsy, not respected by the powers-that-be in Richmond. Now, it seems from polls and commentary, he is regarded as some kind of colossus of Virginia politics. What explains this transformation?

Mike Shear: I'm not sure that the Post ever embraced either patsy or colossus, but I do think Warner's reputation improved significantly after he successfully convinced a Republican legislature to raise taxes last year, arguing that the decision fixed the state's finances and improved state services.

In some ways, it's the expectation game. Few people expected him to succeed at that, so when he did, his stock went up. I also think he has benefitted from John Kerry's loss last year. Many in the party now see him -- or someone like him -- as their party's savior.

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Arlington, Va.: Michael-

I found it incredibly courageous of Senator Mims to propose a smoking ban for public places, and while after the pleasant surprise of it getting out of committee, I was not at all shocked when it got tabled. While such a ban would be nice, I understand it is hardly politically feasible in Virginia in this day and age.

What I would like to know is if there has been any consideration to change the law that says localities restrictions on smoking cannot be any stricter than the state's.

A law that would allow local control may seem more palatable to those in Southwest Virginia than a statewide ban. It would be wonderful if Arlington County could match Montgomery County, Md., on this issue.

It seems this is yeat another issue where the North/South divide is just as fractured as the Left/Right.

Mike Shear: Senator Mims has certainly been one of the most active lawmakers this session.

His bill to ban smoking in public places was a long shot this year. It got out of committee by one vote and died on the Senate floor, where tobacco leaves are carved into the ceiling. Remember, Philip Morris makes billions of cigarettes just down the road from the state capitol.

Mims says he will continue to fight for smoking ban, but you're right that it is likely to be an uphill fight in a state as geographically diverse as Virginia.


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Arlington, Va.: Is there any chance of NoVA seceding from the rest of the Commonwealth? I am real tired of seeing "my" state legislature spend all its time and effort on reinstating school prayer, raising droopy pants, restricting abortion, and bashing gays. Given the reverence many Virginians still feel for the Confederacy, I would think my downstate fellow statesmen would support the idea. We'll keep our tax money and economic base, and you guys can carry guns any where you want.

Mike Shear: Several of you have mentioned the idea of Northern Virginia secession.

That's not going to happen, of course. But it does touch on a key issue in Virginia politics. Down here in Richmond, lawmakers from rural Bristol, near Tennessee, must somehow reach consensus with folks from urban centers like Arlington. At times, that can be a bigger challenge than overcoming political differences. A good example of that is in transportation funding.

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Richmond, Va.: Tim Kaine has all but said he will raise taxes to address transportation concerns. How will this play out on the campaign trail?

Mike Shear: I believe the "tax question" is likely to be a central one in the campaigns for governor.

Former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore has said he will not raise taxes, and has accused Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine of wanting to do just that. Kaine has said he would not raise taxes on gasoline unless there is a constitutional amendment to "lock up" the money in the state's transportation trust fund, where gas taxes are deposited.

Both campaigns have already started launching very harsh attacks, so expect a barrage of literature and -- eventually -- television ads, especially in Northern Virginia, where neither candidate is well-known.

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Arlington, Va.: What is the status of the "droopy drawers" law? Did it pass?

washingtonpost.com: Va. Senate Panel Bags Bill Outlawing Droopy Pants

Mike Shear: No. It was pulled down by the Senate Courts Committee, which declared itself underwhelmed by the proposal.

(For those who might not know, the bill would have fined youngsters $50 for wearing their pants in ways that exposed their underwear.)

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Fairfax, Va.: Mr. Shear -- will pollution in the Virginia tributaries be addressed by the state anytime soon? The James continues to get worse, and I fear that ecological concerns always lose out to the "development/growth" faction.

Mike Shear: There has been money proposed during the budget discussions for cleaning up Virginia waterways, though I suspect the clean water advocates would say it is not enough.

Both the House and Senate and the Governor have said they want to spend $50 million this year on cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, but that is only a fraction of the $3 to $5 billion that is estimated it will take to do that. House Speaker William J. Howell (R) is pushing to spend $50 million each year for the next ten years. That proposal is still pending as part of the budget discussions.

Stay tuned.

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Richmond, Va.: Has the assembly thought about the shortfall the state might face if the federal government goes ahead and reduces medicaid funding to the states? Would this eat up the surplus the state now enjoys?

Thanks for this opportunity to ask questions.

Mike Shear: Virginia's budget is highly dependent on federal funding for Medicaid, education, public safety and other services. Even as the costs of Medicaid increase, the Bush Administration has proposed shifting more of the financial burden for the program to the states. Gov. Warner, as chairman of the National Governors Association, is leading an effort by other governors to get Congress to minimize that shift. He and other governors are meeting in Washington this weekend, and that subject is on the agenda.

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Arlington, Va.: I live in Arlington and commute to Herndon on the toll road. It already costs me $35 per month to do so, even though the road has been paid off. Now it'll be raised to about $55 or $60 per month for me in May. I'm looking at other routes to work. How does the state justify continuing to charge and raise tolls on this road (long since paid off)? Why isn't this considered a tax that I can deduct on my state and federal taxes?

Jeff

Mike Shear: Transportation officials and local officials argue that the toll is the best way to pay for the state's share of a project -- Metrorail to Dulles -- that they say will benefit the riders of that corridor like you. There are some staunch opponents of the rail project who say it's the wrong answer to that problem, but they have not succeeded in convincing the powers that be.

An interesting side note to this issue is that a recent Washington Post poll showed that a large majority of Northern Virginians would rather pay tolls than higher taxes for roads.

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Alexandria, Va.: How much taxpayer money does it cost to propose silly bills (like the no showing your underwear) or changing the constitution to ban gay marriage? I could imagine a lot -- with printing, electricity for the state house, etc. Are there any hard numbers? Thanks.

Mike Shear: I don't know, but it's a good question. Look for that answer at some point in the future.

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Mike Shear: I think that's about all we have time for. Thanks for tons a great questions today.

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