Correction to This Article
A Feb. 2 article about the collapse of a Republican transportation proposal before the Virginia General Assembly incorrectly said that state Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland) joined with three Republicans and five Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee to defeat the GOP deal. He joined with five Republicans and five Democrats to defeat the deal.

Va. Transportation Deal Withers in Senate Panel

Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. presents a GOP-brokered transportation bill to the Senate Finance Committee. The committee rejected the plan and backed an alternative proposal with a statewide sales tax on gasoline.
Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. presents a GOP-brokered transportation bill to the Senate Finance Committee. The committee rejected the plan and backed an alternative proposal with a statewide sales tax on gasoline. (By Bob Brown -- Associated Press)

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By Amy Gardner and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 2, 2007

RICHMOND, Feb. 1 -- A fragile Republican-brokered deal on transportation funding collapsed Thursday after a Virginia Senate committee endorsed a competing proposal with dim prospects in the House of Delegates, increasing the chances that the session's key issue could go unaddressed in an election year.

The Senate Finance Committee voted 9 to 6 for a plan that would impose a statewide tax rather than divert money from other priorities, such as schools and social services. The plan would apply the state's 5 percent sales tax to gasoline to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for road and transit improvements. Like the competing plan, it also would allow Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to raise local taxes to pay for transportation projects in those traffic-clogged regions.

"A reasonable plan does not take money from public education, higher education, health care and public safety," said state Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax). "Especially, it doesn't take money from our sick and our disabled neighbors."

But the committee plan raises taxes -- and that could be a deal-killer in the House of Delegates. With three weeks left in the session, the process is not over, but Republican House leaders said they have little hope that a transportation package will emerge this year unless the Senate agrees to support a plan with no new statewide taxes.

"We had something that represented a good-faith compromise that had a chance for success," House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said moments after the vote. "I'm just extremely disappointed. This represented a lot of work by a lot of people."

Before the legislative session began three weeks ago, Republican senators and delegates met in private to negotiate a deal to fund transportation improvements. With all 140 seats in the House and Senate up for election in the fall, the negotiators feared that ending this session without a transportation plan could jeopardize the GOP majorities in both houses. They had hoped they had a deal acceptable to their colleagues.

But the Finance Committee rejected the compromise plan 11 to 4 before approving the proposal with the gasoline sales tax. Differences between senators and anti-tax delegates also doomed a transportation deal last year.

Before Thursday's committee vote, the Republican senators who brokered the deal pleaded with their colleagues. They were unmoved, they said, by their colleagues' emotional speeches about protecting state services.

"Passion ain't moving this bill one inch," said Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), a principal negotiator of the Republican deal and a self-described "pragmatist."

But Norment's bill wasn't moving, either, primarily because it was missing a key supporter: Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland), perhaps the legislature's most outspoken opponent of diverting existing revenue to roads and transit.

Chichester was not part of the Republican negotiations. On Thursday, he joined with three Republicans and all five Democrats on the Finance Committee to defeat the GOP deal. He said little about the proposal, but those who share his views spoke about the need to protect state services.

"To start trying to resolve the serious, serious transportation issues we have at the expense of school-age children and law enforcement and senior citizens is flawed," said Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania). "There's no other way to describe it."


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