Roads Bill Likely to Run Into Divide In Va. Senate

Sen. John H. Chichester, left, and House Speaker William J. Howell disagree on how to solve transportation problems.
Sen. John H. Chichester, left, and House Speaker William J. Howell disagree on how to solve transportation problems. (By Robert A. Reeder For The Washington Post)
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 12, 2007

RICHMOND -- A multibillion-dollar transportation plan that sailed out of the House of Delegates last week begins its trek through the Senate in a friendly committee Monday, but it is almost certain to face serious opposition later in the week.

House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) won 62 votes in the 100-member House for his plan to build roads and improve transit by raising auto registration fees, increasing taxes on diesel fuel, shifting $250 million from other state programs and allowing Northern Virginia localities to raise taxes. All but a few members of Howell's Republican majority voted for the plan.

But the Senate's 40 members remain philosophically divided about whether to support the approach, which was negotiated by some of the chamber's most senior and respected members. The rift is not unlike the bitter divide that has engulfed the House for several years.

That leaves the success of the plan in doubt as several factions in the Senate said they are working on alterations to Howell's bill to improve its chances for passage before the General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn Feb. 24.

"It is in a constant state of maturation and evolution," Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) said after meeting with Howell and other Republican leaders Friday. "We are continuing to work," he said. "Hopefully by Monday, we will have a new version."

Public debate will shift Monday to a special meeting of the Senate Transportation Committee, where Chairman Martin E. Williams (R-Newport News) predicted the proposal's easy passage. "The bill we report out will look much like" Howell's bill, Williams said. "We'll probably [just] tinker with it."

But the real action will begin later in the week in the Senate Finance Committee. Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland) opposes the plan's use of the general fund for transportation because that money normally pays for health care, schools, colleges and public safety programs.

Lawmakers say the $250 million is the bill's biggest obstacle.

"That's probably the major issue of contention right now," said Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), who was one of a handful of lawmakers who, along with Norment, helped negotiate the Howell plan this year. "We're just trying to see how much flexibility there is on all sides."

There might not be much. Stolle and Norment find themselves locked in a battle with Chichester -- the single most powerful member in the Senate and a close friend of theirs for years.

Chichester and his allies want to eliminate as much general fund money as possible from the plan, replacing it with revenue from higher fees and taxes, most notably a 5 percent sales tax on gasoline. Stolle and Norment said general fund money should stay high so taxes can remain low. If that doesn't happen, they said, the plan will collapse in the House when it returns there for final approval.

Resolving the issue is like squeezing the air from one end of a long balloon to the other, lawmakers said.

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