House Plan Opens Fray In Va. Over Road Funds

By Chris L. Jenkins and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 11, 2006

RICHMOND, Feb. 10 -- Republican leaders in the House agreed Friday that Virginia needs to spend more money on easing traffic congestion but said the figure should be far less than what the governor and some Senate leaders believe is necessary.

The unveiling of the House plan, which, unlike the others, would not raise taxes, confirms that all parts of the Virginia government favor more spending on transportation. But it also marks the start of what is likely to be a month of intense wrangling among state leaders over how much money to raise and how to raise it.

The House proposal relies on the state's billion-dollar surplus, higher fees on bad drivers and the use of state-financed debt to funnel money to Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, which have the state's most-congested roads.

The $2 billion that House leaders propose to raise over four years would be about half that recommended by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and the Republican-controlled Senate. They want to raise nearly $4 billion over four years through increases in taxes and fees. House leaders rejected the need for higher taxes.

"This is a challenge out of which Virginia cannot pave its way or spend its way," said House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), standing in front of dozens of GOP delegates during an early afternoon news conference. "Raising taxes further . . . wouldn't just be irresponsible, it would be wrong."

Kaine is seeking higher taxes on auto insurance and vehicle purchases as well as stiffer fees for car registration and driving offenses. The Senate also wants the higher car sales tax, as well as a new sales tax on gasoline at the wholesale level.

The battle lines in the General Assembly are similar to those drawn two years ago, when the House and Senate argued for more than two months over proposed tax increases to pay for colleges and other schools, health care and public safety. That ended with a compromise to raise taxes endorsed by then-Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), most senators and 17 Republicans in the House who joined with Democratic delegates to form a majority.

But Republicans said that they were unified this year and that they could address the state's needs by combining their more modest revenue plan with other initiatives, such as tweaking zoning laws to help localities manage growth and instituting several changes at the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Their plan calls for spending an additional $400 million annually, financed largely through debt and through tougher penalties on chronic bad drivers. They also would use about one-third of the tax collected on auto insurance premiums -- a part of the Kaine plan, as well -- and some of the taxes paid to record deeds and wills.

As a one-time investment in transportation projects, the House leaders would spend more than $552 million of the state's surplus in the next fiscal year. That is more than Kaine or the Senate would use from the surplus.

Delacey Skinner, Kaine's communications director, said the administration "had some concerns" with the plan, specifically about the amount of money the initiative would raise to help VDOT finance construction projects while paying for road maintenance.

"It's about a third of what we think is necessary to address certain priorities in the transportation network," including road maintenance, she said.

Howell said his Republican caucus, which controls 58 of the 100 seats in the House, was unified behind the effort. But several GOP delegates from Northern Virginia said it fell short of meeting the region's needs.

"If I was the czar of Virginia, this would not be my plan," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax). "But it's a starting point." He has said that Northern Virginia needs at least an additional $300 million a year for transportation.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said he was pleased that House Republicans recognized Northern Virginia's needs, but he said their targeted funds would not be enough to ease congestion in the region. Part of the House plan calls for $58 million a year for Northern Virginia, paid for by bonds.

"I won't look at any gift horse in the mouth," he said. "But that amount of money on an annual basis is one interchange up here. Our needs go far beyond that."

Senators have expressed skepticism about some of the funding sources that the delegates want to tap. In particular, they doubt the wisdom of relying on debt.

"Maybe as I get older, I'm getting more conservative, but to me, debt is simply postponing something you will eventually have to pay for," said Senate Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico).

© 2006 The Washington Post Company