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Kaine Left Wanting as Va. Budget Approved

By Michael D. Shear and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 29, 2006

RICHMOND, June 28 -- The 2006 General Assembly gave final approval to the state budget and went home Wednesday, leaving behind a first-year governor who presided over the worst stalemate in the legislature's history while failing to make good on his promise to ease traffic congestion for Virginians.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) confronted an issue that has bedeviled state leaders for two decades: how to finance billions of dollars in road and transit construction. His plan for tax increases to finance those improvements, presented six days into his term, stalled after he misread the resolve of his adversaries and overestimated public pressure for improvements.

He had mixed success with his other major initiative, an ambitious push to adopt new tools to slow growth. Efforts to help localities study the impact of development on traffic passed. But he failed to win passage of his boldest proposal, a new law letting local government turn down development if nearby roads are inadequate.

By pushing for the higher taxes, he also prompted the state's worst budget stalemate, which ended four days shy of a deadline that threatened to shut down the government and cause a constitutional crisis.

"There's a lot of people who have been around a long time who were surprised he attempted to tackle this elephant in his first session," said Michael Toalson, the chief lobbyist for the Homebuilders Association of Virginia. "Most successful governors just try to survive their first session."

The legislature concluded its budget work during a rancorous session Wednesday in which the Republicans, who control the House and Senate, rejected most of Kaine's final amendments to the two-year budget, then headed home for the summer.

Kaine said he was puzzled by the rejections but hailed record state spending on education, the environment and colleges.

"It's a great budget for the environment and the Chesapeake Bay," Kaine said after lawmakers finished. "It's a great budget for higher ed. It's a great budget for K-12. It's a great budget for those with disabilities."

But even as legislators gave final approval to the $72 billion spending plan, they agreed to return to Richmond, possibly in September, for a last-ditch attempt at reaching a deal that would implement Kaine's tax plan for transportation improvements.

Doing that would help to salvage for Kaine a rookie year that lobbyists, lawmakers and political observers say was remarkably ambitious. Another failure would increase the pressure on the governor to find a marquee success during his remaining three years.

For Kaine, that could mean making good on his other promises: to provide all 4-year-olds with the opportunity to go to preschool, protect thousands of acres of open space, tackle sprawl and limit homeowner taxes.

Kaine's supporters credit him for raising the transportation funding issue to a new level and blame House Republicans, who were still smarting from their failure two years ago to stop a tax increase pushed by then-Gov. Mark R. Warner (D).

Kaine "was unable to get it done. But he's not the czar," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who opposed Kaine's tax increases for roads. "He can't just command everyone to put more money to transportation."

But even some of Kaine's closest allies said the governor seemed unwilling to confront that challenge with the tenacity that was needed.

"Tim sees this as one battle in many," Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) said this week. "There's only so much throat-cutting that can be done. Was he really willing to go to the mat, so to speak, on this one issue? Clearly the decision was he was not."

'A Better Way'

In his first State of the Commonwealth speech to lawmakers, two days after his inauguration, Kaine exuded the confidence that has quickly become his hallmark.

"I am filled with optimism and resolve, with respect for your service and sacrifice, and with high expectations that we will work together," he told assembly members Jan. 16. Later, in his nationally televised response to President Bush's State of the Union address, Kaine bragged about Virginia's bipartisan tradition.

"There's a better way," he said several times.

But that better way has eluded him. Wednesday's clash over 36 budget amendments -- during which House leaders excoriated Kaine for proposing $29 million in new spending -- was the latest in a series with conservative Republicans.

The worst came in February, after Kaine nominated the state's top labor leader, and a close friend, to his Cabinet. In a historic move, the House GOP rejected Daniel G. LeBlanc, prompting an angry Kaine to vow that "they are going to regret it."

Lawmakers say Kaine never followed through on that threat, giving adversaries the idea that he was all bluff and bluster. In the end, conservatives forced Kaine and his Senate allies to abandon tax increases for roads.

"Those tax hikes did not survive," a triumphant House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said after a budget deal was reached.

But others say the fights over LeBlanc and transportation were evidence of what they called the intransigence of Howell and his House Republicans, who, they said, had decided early on that they wanted to make Kaine's first year a difficult one. Several said House Republicans saw Kaine's response to Bush as the beginning of a Democratic star in the making.

"It would have been very difficult for a new governor to come in and have transcended the division in a way that could have brought about a compromise," said Robert D. Holsworth, a professor of government at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Kaine's allies blame the failure of the legislature on transportation and the budget on the House GOP.

"The House Republicans may be running around claiming victory, but the people in Fairfax County and Loudoun County are still stuck in traffic," said Mo Elleithee, a senior strategist on Kaine's campaign who advised him during the legislative battles.

"It was the House Republicans who dug their heels in and said we're not going to play ball," Elleithee said. "That's something that Virginians are going to remember next year."

Other Victories

Kaine's advisers also hope Virginians will remember his other accomplishments.

They note his push for statewide teacher evaluations, a first for Virginia. And they say he succeeded in passing many smaller initiatives to improve health-care insurance for small businesses, fight price gouging and create a college institute in southwest Virginia.

Christopher Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, said Kaine's willingness to risk the ire of developers and engage the growth issue has led to a shift in tone in Richmond.

"These issues simply weren't discussed openly before," said Miller, who complained that under Warner it was hard to get phone calls returned. "He's been courageous, and that has enabled a lot of other things to happen. Very successful politicians have accomplished far less."

Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), a political adversary who crossed party lines to work with Kaine on the growth issue, complained that the governor was not willing to take the risks necessary to see the bill through. Marshall said he devised a parliamentary maneuver to revive the effort in the Senate after it died in the House, but Kaine's staff declined to pursue the idea.

"He went to bat but left the batter's box before the final balls were thrown," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said Kaine -- through some difficult failures -- has learned a valuable lesson.

"He has learned . . . that when you're involved in high stakes poker, you better be willing to go all the way. Very few of us were. [But he's] a long way from fatally wounded."

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