Va. Roads Deal Near, Say GOP Leaders
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
RICHMOND, Jan. 9 -- Top Republican lawmakers say they are within reach of an agreement that could end the bitter feud over how to fix the state's transportation network as the General Assembly convenes Wednesday.
The negotiations, which have been taking place privately for weeks, are focused on a compromise that would include regional tax increases in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads and a decision to borrow as much as $2 billion for new road projects, according to interviews with a majority of the participants. They declined to be identified because talks are at a sensitive juncture.
But by late Tuesday, the two sides had not shaken hands, and some expressed pessimism about the chances of success, in part because of a concern about the revenue to be raised in Hampton Roads. And participants said reaching agreement among the small group of lawmakers involved does not guarantee approval by the full legislature, where personal animosities and election-year strategies could get in the way.
"It's vitally important that the issue of transportation be addressed this session," said Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R), who has hosted the small group of lawmakers, which includes moderate and conservative Republicans from the House and Senate. "I know there are people of goodwill in both houses that understand that. In an election year, you don't get any points for trying. You get points for results."
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and Senate Finance Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland) have given their blessing to the talks. Both have been skeptical for weeks, and either could effectively scuttle a deal if it is not to his liking.
The outcome of the talks could be critical for Virginia residents, who have seen traffic worsen and roads crumble while lawmakers argue over how to pay for improvements. Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) failed to deliver last year on a campaign pledge to fix the state's ailing road network.
But the upcoming November election, in which all 140 lawmakers are up for reelection, has sparked a renewed interest in compromise among the Republican delegates and senators who control the General Assembly. They fear the voters will blame them for the stalemate if something is not done this session.
As lawmakers streamed back to Richmond and settled into their offices on Capitol Square, several said they believe the chances that a substantive deal will be struck to find more money for roads and transit are higher than ever.
"People understand finally that this crisis is not being fabricated," said Del. David E. Poisson (D-Loudoun), who said he found it fitting that several members of the House Appropriations Committee attending a meeting at Northern Virginia Community College's Loudoun County campus last week became mired for several hours in the afternoon rush hour on Route 7. "Our lives look like that every day. This problem needs to be addressed."
On Wednesday, Kaine is expected to call for a spirit of compromise and cooperation in his second State of the Commonwealth speech in Jamestown. The speech will cap an opening day of celebration as the entire legislature visits the Jamestown Settlement to kick off the 400th anniversary of the English landing there.
Vice President Cheney will help celebrate the state's long history and will unveil a commemorative Jamestown coin. But the state's current woes will be the centerpiece of Kaine's talk, aides said.
"I think we're going to do a lot of good things this session," Kaine predicted Tuesday. "There's as much earnest dialogue on this topic now as there was in a 10-month session last year. It's just good that there is earnest dialogue going on."
Several participants in the GOP talks said they had initially hoped to announce a tentative agreement by Wednesday that could form the framework for a deal with Kaine on the biggest issue facing the state. Several said an announcement from the group could still come in the next few days.
The lawmakers from the House are Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), Majority Whip M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), chairman of the Republican caucus. The senators include Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico), Floor Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) and Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach).
The group's meetings intensified this week ahead of the session's opening, when the traditional bickering over other, non-transportation bills could complicate negotiations.
Participants described the meetings as much more cordial and productive than the budget negotiations of recent years, which have been bogged down in angry rhetoric and accusations. One participant said the discussions "have been the best we've had in years."
But there have been false starts along the way. Most of the lawmakers thought a deal had been reached Monday afternoon, only to find that concern about the Hampton Roads regional taxes had derailed the agreement by Monday night's conference call.
"If and when there's some news that the legislature has agreed on a transportation solution, I think they are going to announce it," McDonnell said.
Howell declined to discuss the specifics of the negotiations with senators. But he said he is cautiously optimistic that the party leaders can work something out.
"Anytime you compromise -- a true compromise, a good compromise -- both sides have to give something up," Howell said. "It's a process. We're exploring opportunities. We're exploring what we can do. And I hope it works out."
Chichester joined Kaine last year to push for a statewide tax increase to fund transportation, which was opposed by House Republican leaders, including Howell. After being thwarted by the House last year, Chichester said he does not plan to take an active role in forging a solution this year.
"I think it is time for others to take over that role," Chichester said. "If there is a solution, let them try to find it, and I would be happy to look at it."
Staff writers Tim Craig and Amy Gardner contributed to this report.