Va. House, Senate Approve Roads Bill
Sunday, February 25, 2007
RICHMOND, Feb. 24 -- Lawmakers passed Virginia's first transportation plan in a generation Saturday, voting to spend $1.5 billion a year on roads, bridges and transit after ending a Republican feud that has stymied them for years.
The 105-page bill, engineered by Republicans, would pay for improvements in roads and mass transit using $2.5 billion in bonds paid back from the state's general fund. The Virginia Department of Transportation would get an infusion of cash for road maintenance. And Northern Virginia would stand to gain an additional $400 million a year from taxes and fees that must be approved by local officials.
But the first major attempt to meet the state's transportation needs since a gas-tax increase in 1986 was immediately condemned by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who said he will make "significant changes" to it.
To become law, the plan needs the governor's signature, giving him leverage over its final shape. Lawmakers will consider those changes in a one-day session April 4. If they do not go along with them, Kaine can veto the entire bill.
Most of the legislature's Democrats agreed with Kaine that the plan is inadequate and a threat to the state's other core services, such as education and public safety. They said it would not ease traffic congestion for the state's many weary commuters.
Approved easily in the House of Delegates by a vote of 64 to 34, the plan's razor-thin passage in the 40-member Senate was uncertain until the final moment, leaving legions of lobbyists, lawmakers, governor's aides and reporters in doubt until 21 green lights appeared on the Senate's electronic voting board. The final tally, on the last day of the 2007 session, was 21 to 18, with one senator not voting.
"We can whine and cry about us not getting everyone else to pay for our roads, or we can act decisively and get something done," Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) told his colleagues. "If you want to take a massive step forward, vote yes."
By approving the bill, Republicans hoped to erase a perception among voters that they are unable to govern and are mired in philosophical squabbles between the anti-tax, conservative House and the more moderate Senate. Lawmakers now head home to begin campaigning for an election that is about eight months away.
"Everybody was talking about how Republicans can't govern," Albo said. "Well, we just delivered the largest transportation package in the history of Virginia to the governor's desk."
Republicans, who control both chambers, had put together the plan this year, when all 140 House and Senate seats are up for election. A key dispute centered on the use of money from the general fund, which pays for most state services and programs. Kaine and many senators favored a statewide tax increase to finance the transportation projects, but the plan approved Saturday calls for most of the money to come from borrowing $2.5 billion and paying the debt costs out of the general fund.
The governor, who campaigned in 2005 on a promise to solve the state's transportation crisis, had spent the previous 48 hours urging lawmakers to defeat the plan, calling it "bogus," "irresponsible" and "a very bad idea." He had threatened to call a special session of the legislature if the plan had failed, promising to deliver a proposal of his own. The approval was a blow to his influence and relationship with the Republican leaders he had opposed.
"I'm going to give the bill a public airing and do what should have been done [by the General Assembly]: a public airing and a public discussion," Kaine said after lawmakers adjourned at 6:02 p.m.