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Va. Session Opens With Warner Stressing Roads, Bipartisanship

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2005; Page A01

RICHMOND, Jan. 12 -- Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) pledged Wednesday night to make good on a campaign promise that has eluded him in the first three years of his term: easing Virginia's notorious traffic congestion and improving the public transit system.

In a 44-minute speech to a joint session of the 2005 General Assembly on its first day, Warner asked the legislature to pass an $824 million transportation package made possible by the state's rapidly improving economy.

In his State of the Commonwealth address in the House of Delegates, Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) focused on his proposal to improve roads and expand public transit. (Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

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But as he begins his final year in office, he also made clear that he wants Virginians to remember him principally as the governor who worked with members of both parties to straighten out the state's once-shaky finances.

"When I first came before you three years ago, the commonwealth faced an uncertain future. Political gridlock, a deepening national recession and a lack of fiscal discipline had created the worst budgetary crisis in Virginia history," Warner said in a speech carried nationally on C-SPAN2. "I asked you to stand with me in building a stronger foundation for Virginia's future . . . and that's exactly what you did."

On transportation, Warner and House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) have offered competing visions for what they concede are modest attempts to reduce traffic. Lawmakers expect leading Senate Republicans to offer a third version soon, and although all three appear similar, there are key differences that lawmakers warn could lead to sharp debate and even deadlock.

But Warner vowed to pursue what he said is a "smart, innovative way to help Virginians stuck in traffic" and commended Howell "for proposing a similar plan last week. I look forward to working with both the House and the Senate on this critical issue."

In the official GOP response to Warner's speech, Del. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach) said House Republicans are "fully committed to making major new investments in Virginia's transportation system."

Lobbyists and local officials said they remain skeptical that a long-term transportation solution will emerge. Warner failed two years ago to persuade voters in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to approve a sales tax increase for transportation. Last year, lawmakers dropped all efforts to raise more money for roads and transit as part of the overall budget compromise.

"The ghost of the 2004 session -- the failure to address transportation -- hangs over the 2005 session," said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D-At Large).

Warner also vowed in his third State of the Commonwealth speech to seek more money for rural economic development and less regulation of state colleges. And he heralded what he called the bipartisan accomplishments of last year's extended debate over taxes.

In sharp contrast to last year's speech, which was filled with warnings of financial peril and thinly veiled veto threats, Wednesday's message was upbeat and optimistic. Still, Warner said the state's booming economy should not be used as an excuse to undo last year's decision to raise taxes.

"We will not use these additional revenues to create tax or spending commitments that we can't afford," he said. "We will not, as some have advocated, retreat from what we accomplished last year."

Lawmakers in both parties praised Warner's speech as a welcome overture that will help heal relations after a bitter, 115-day session last year. The session, scheduled to last 60 days, ended when a group of GOP lawmakers in the House broke ranks with their party leaders to support the compromise tax increase.

Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun) said, "Many of us, even on the other side of the partisan aisle, would like to see him have a successful final year."

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