Senate, Democrats Oppose House Proposal

By Tim Craig and Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 28, 2006

RICHMOND, Sept. 27 -- A $2.4 billion proposal from House Republicans to address Virginia's congestion problems without raising taxes encountered steep opposition from Democrats and Senate leaders Wednesday, increasing doubt that a long-term package will emerge from this week's special legislative session.

Supporters said the plan is a reasonable alternative to raising taxes, which most House Republicans say they will not do. The plan calls for borrowing $1.5 billion to be spent across the state over five years. The rest of the money would come from existing revenue -- an appropriate source, plan supporters said, at a time when Virginia is enjoying record budget surpluses.

The plan would send millions to highway and transit projects across the state, including $134 million next year for Northern Virginia. The region would get $30 million in 2008 and $125 million annually for the subsequent five years, according to local government officials who analyzed the plan. The only guarantee after that is $50 million a year for transit improvements.

"I hope people won't walk away from $2.4 billion in funding," said Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax).

"I think we've got a good package," House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said.

Opponents in the General Assembly criticized the plan that emerged Wednesday, homing in on the fact that most of the money would flow for only five years. The proposal also would divert existing revenue from such ongoing budget priorities as schools, public safety and human services, they said. They also said that the package isn't broad enough and that it would generate only a fraction of the money of the competing plan, which focused on Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Lawmakers returned to Richmond on Wednesday after failing to come up with a transportation plan during an extended legislative session earlier this year. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Senate leaders had agreed on a statewide tax increase to pay for more roads, but House Republican leaders blocked the plan, saying voters did not want more taxes. The disagreement delayed passage of a state budget for more than three months.

On Tuesday, a House panel defeated another proposal that would have raised more than $400 million in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, the state's two most congested regions.

The House republican plan would send $125 million a year from 2009 to 2013 to Northern Virginia, to be shared among each of the region's jurisdictions and Metro.

"You take on $1.5 billion in debt and spend $300 million a year for five years, and then it just stops," said Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "And then we're in the same situation we're in today, only we've got 15 more years of debt to pay."

Chichester said he knows of no one in the Senate who favors the House proposal. Senators won't consider the plan, however, unless it emerges from the House, where the Democratic minority stalled action until at least Thursday.

"What we see before us is just a sham," Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax) said of the House plan.

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