Speaker Irked by Vote on Roads

Among those observing the Senate Finance Committee vote on the transportation plan were, from left, Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach), Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax).
Among those observing the Senate Finance Committee vote on the transportation plan were, from left, Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach), Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax). (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear and Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

RICHMOND, Feb. 13 -- Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) threatened Tuesday to withdraw a multibillion-dollar compromise transportation plan and "go home" after a Senate panel added tax and fee increases to the measure.

"If this bill comes over to the House, we may just reject it and go home," Howell told reporters immediately after the action by the Senate Finance Committee. "I have a very fragile coalition in the House caucus that took a lot of cajoling to get them this far."

Howell made his comments after the Senate committee voted to modify the transportation plan to include a one-time $150 auto registration fee and authority for governments in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to impose a sales tax increase to raise money for local roads and transit.

The tax and fee increases are intended to replace a provision in Howell's bill that would shift $250 million from the state's general fund to pay for road maintenance. The general fund is typically used to finance schools, colleges, health care and public safety.

Other advocates of the speaker's plan, including several senior senators who helped negotiate the compromise, urged Howell to have patience as the sweeping transportation proposal works its way through the sometimes disjointed legislative system. The session is scheduled to end Feb. 24.

Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) said the committee's action widens the areas of disagreement between the Senate and the House. But he said those differences can be worked out if both chambers keep the bill alive. "I would hope the speaker would let the process continue," Stolle said. "Transportation will not be done until the last vote."

As it passed the House last week, Howell's bill would raise auto registration fees, increase taxes on diesel fuel and shift $250 million in general fund money from other state programs. It would also give Northern Virginia governments power to raise taxes and fees that would generate about $400 million a year locally for roads and transit.

Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland), the Finance Committee chairman, said the use of general fund money for transportation would rob the state's "core" services. And he said the legislature would inevitably take that money back for other programs if the state's economy turns sour.

"I have always said we should reserve the general fund for our core responsibilities," Chichester said. "I am more wedded to that conviction than ever before."

Howell disputed that argument before the committee's vote.

"It does not, and will not, negatively affect funding for any of the other core services provided by the commonwealth," Howell told committee members.

In some ways, the battle between Chichester and Howell recalls the House and Senate feud three years ago over whether to raise taxes in order to increase spending for such purposes as public education and social services. In 2004, Chichester joined then-Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and won the battle with the speaker.

But now, House Republicans appear to be doing what they can to neutralize that victory by pushing to finance a transportation package with general fund dollars.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) said many Republican delegates believe that there is too much spending on state programs, creating a large and bloated government. They view the battle over roads and transit this year as an opportunity to push that point of view, he said.

"We believe you can find $250 million in the general fund," Griffith said. "The alternative" -- imposing the $150 registration fee -- "raids the general fund of every family in Virginia."

Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) said the compromise transportation plan he helped negotiate with Griffith allows House Republicans to "go to their conservative constituency and say, 'We have cut back government.' "

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) issued a statement Tuesday condemning the Finance Committee vote.

"By adopting a plan that refuses to use any existing resources for transportation, the Committee has harmed our chances of reaching a transportation agreement," Bolling said. "It makes no sense to ask the people of Virginia to pay higher taxes and fees at a time when state spending is increasing at historic levels."

Chichester, who views himself as a guardian of the state's fiscal health, said a decision to commit $250 million to transportation threatens to undermine what he and Warner did two years ago.

"We cannot fund the Standards of Quality if we do that," Chichester said before Tuesday's vote, referring to a state education program. "We cannot meet our Medicaid needs if we do that. We'll be unable to give salary increases to our employees if we do that. And a myriad other responsibilities. And there goes your $500 million. So it's not sustainable at all."

Norment said he was disappointed with the committee'svote but not surprised. And he said it is far too soon to predict defeat for transportation this year.

Tuesday's vote does no more than "set the parameters" for negotiations in conference committee, he said, from "zero general fund dollars," as Chichester would prefer, to $250 million, as the negotiated package calls for.

On Tuesday afternoon, delegates took a step toward ensuring that those negotiations take place. The House Transportation Committee voted to turn an already-passed Senate bill into Howell's compromise, giving the compromise another chance of being approved before the General Assembly adjourns next week.

"We're just getting into the fourth quarter on this game right now," Norment said. "The first teams are coming on the field to try to get this wrapped up. So I hope he will not pull the bill."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company