By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 14, 2007
More than ever, issues important to residents of Northern Virginia will drive the agenda this year in the General Assembly, where lawmakers from across the state are consumed by a transportation package designed primarily to ease congestion in the Washington region.
This year, the region's growing influence extends beyond roads. With Northern Virginia controlling a greater share of the legislature, and with all 140 seats up for election this year, lawmakers will debate a range of initiatives designed to please the region's residents, including growth controls, a smoking ban in restaurants and an increase in the minimum wage.
But even as the Washington suburbs become the focus in Richmond, the fact that a roads plan is not guaranteed highlights the region's precarious position among legislators. For decades, rural Virginia and the Washington region have clashed over issues as diverse as Metro funding and gun control. That clash -- between urban and rural, liberal and conservative, rich and poor -- lives on. And it confounds Northern Virginians sitting in traffic for hours each day.
"It's extremely frustrating," said David L. Howell, managing broker of McEnearney Associates, a real estate company in McLean. Howell commutes about 45 minutes each way from his home in Mount Vernon but has come to prepare for the occasional morning when it inexplicably takes him more than twice that long.
Howell compares his daily commute to playing Russian roulette. And he blames the General Assembly for not doing more to change that.
"The failure of the legislature to do anything substantive really presents the greatest threat to the long-term well-being of the economy here," he said.
The clash of perspectives is just as frustrating to rural lawmakers who say their constituents cannot afford a tax hike and who say the Washington region has no clue what the rest of Virginia looks like.
"Households where I live don't make $98,000 a year," said Del. Clarke N. Hogan, a Republican from Halifax County, on the North Carolina border. "It's more like [$24,000]. You add $500 or $1,000 of new taxes on top of that, and you've wiped out their entire disposable income."
The economic disparity between the Washington region and the rest of Virginia has long been a sticking point in the General Assembly. Rural dwellers see a region so wealthy that they can't imagine sending their money north.
"Other parts of the state, they see almost unbelievable affluence in Northern Virginia," State Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington) said. "I think people understand intellectually that it's more expensive to live in Northern Virginia. But getting the actual money has proven to be difficult."
But that disparity cuts the other way, too. The rest of Virginia relies heavily on the strength of the Washington area economy to fund its schools, highways and other priorities. Fairfax County, for example, keeps about 20 cents for every dollar in tax receipts it sends to Richmond, Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said.
That fact has been cited many times over the years to help Northern Virginia win support for its priorities, including funding for Metro and the right to raise the local gas tax.
"A gentleman from Lunenberg County called me up to say, 'I don't want my taxes to go up so they can build roads in Northern Virginia,' " said Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath). "I said, 'Who do you think is paying for your schools?' Right now, the economic engine that has been driving Virginia has serious transportation woes. It's in the interest of every single Virginian, no matter where he or she lives, to fix that problem."
Opposition to that argument within the Republican majority in the House of Delegates may be waning, particularly with November elections looming.
Traffic-weary Northern Virginians have leaned Democratic in recent elections, notably with the election of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine in 2005. They also carry more influence in the legislature than in the past, electing nearly one-third of its members. Now, Republican leaders must consider that opposition to a roads plan could affect the balance of power.
"We need to build some roads, okay?" said Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William), who maintains his opposition to new taxes but agrees that something must be done about transportation this legislative session. Among other things, Lingamfelter is proposing new tolls across the state to pay for improvements.
"This is the year to move the ball forward," he said.
Bills will be debated this year to raise the minimum wage, to block a power line that Dominion Virginia Power has proposed to build through the pastoral outer suburbs of Washington and to ban smoking in restaurants and bars. Del. David E. Poisson (D-Loudoun) wants to give a tax break to owners of hybrid cars. Whipple would like to increase state salaries in group homes near Washington to account for the higher cost of living.
But with many of these issues, lawmakers will come face to face with the rest of Virginia, where voters tend to be more conservative on taxes and social issues. They seek less government intervention, notably on gun control. They are historically loyal to the tobacco industry, which once drove the state economy and remains a key factor.
But on transportation, Northern Virginia has a powerful ally in Hampton Roads, the state's other traffic-choked region.
The rest of the state would get some help, too. In addition to promoting regional taxing authority for those two metropolitan areas, lawmakers are considering a statewide plan worth $1 billion a year that would funnel money to Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, and also to Interstate 81, Route 58 to the south and rural roads in Southwest Virginia.
Still, the greatest need is near Washington. The challenge for Northern Virginia lawmakers is to persuade their rural counterparts that helping the Washington region is akin to helping themselves.
"I know how vital the Washington economy is to my district," said Hogan, who operates a sawmill in Halifax. "Believe me, I've heard it ad nauseam. But the fact is, it's true. I understand that. I just want the folks from Northern Virginia to understand where I'm coming from, too."