Va. GOP Unites Against Kaine

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 1, 2007

RICHMOND, Feb. 28 -- Virginia Republicans, who have fought among themselves for years, have launched a unified, election-year effort to generate support for a transportation package that was crafted by party leaders and that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has threatened to veto.

Since the weekend, when the Republican-controlled General Assembly agreed to a $1.5 billion-a-year plan, the state party and its allies have produced a television ad criticizing Kaine, held news conferences, dispatched talking points to GOP legislators and begun organizing meetings in communities the governor plans to visit.

Republicans, tired of feeling outmaneuvered by successive Democratic governors, are hoping to outflank Kaine on one of his signature issues while convincing voters that theirs is the party committed to relieving gridlock.

The GOP response is being coordinated by House and Senate leaders as well as state party Chairman Ed Gillespie. With all 140 legislators up for reelection in the fall, the Republican effort offers a glimpse into what is likely to be an aggressive campaign to defend their Assembly majority.

"We don't have the luxury of the bully pulpit that the governor has. He has planes, cars to take him around and can command audiences, but we do want to try to get the word out that this is a fundamentally sound plan," said House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford).

The GOP plan calls for regional taxes and fees in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads that would raise $400 million a year for projects in the Washington suburbs, although they must be approved by local officials. The plan also calls for a statewide $10 increase in vehicle registrations and borrowing $2.5 billion.

The debt would be repaid by taking $172 million to $184 million each year from the state's general fund, which pays for public safety, education and other services. In Virginia, transportation needs have historically been paid out of a separate pot of money derived from a gas tax, a portion of the state sales tax and other fees.

Kaine and Democratic leaders, who had advocated statewide taxes to fund new projects, say the Republican plan will undermine core government services. "Even as our general fund is growing, so is the commitment that we've made to education, health care and public safety," said Delacey Skinner, the governor's communications director.

At a news conference Wednesday, several Republican leaders who have opposed one another in recent years joined forces to rebut the governor, who has said he plans to hold a "very public discussion" across the state about how best to fund transportation.

Using props and charts, legislators said that their plan diverts less than 1 percent a year from the $17 billion general fund. "We say to our critics, 'If you are serious about doing something to end gridlock, join us in supporting this plan,' " Senate Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico) said.

Howell added, "We are not talking about widows and orphans being denied benefits."

The governor's office says that the annual debt would be closer to $200 million, more than the combined operating budgets of the departments of Health and Aging and equal to what the Virginia State Police receive from the general fund each year.

Skinner said diverting the money could endanger "very, very important programs that Virginians are depending on."

The relative unity being displayed by Republicans could signal that years of division within the party are easing.

The party has been splintered since former Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) persuaded 17 Republican delegates to agree to a $1.5 billion tax increase in 2004. Conservatives rebelled and have since been at odds with moderate party members, who have favored additional tax increases.

The rift almost forced a government shutdown last summer when the two chambers couldn't agree on a budget.

This year, even though Senate President John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland) opposed the compromise plan, he could only persuade one other Republican to join him in voting against it. Several Republican senators, under pressure from party leaders, voted for the plan even though they called it fiscally irresponsible.

The compromise "demonstrated when we really got down to the crunch, the Republicans are committed to dealing with the transportation crisis," said U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.).

Amy Reger, executive director of the Virginia Democratic Party, said, "The fact is, the Republican plan will . . . steal money from our schools, our colleges and our frail elderly while not providing enough dollars to come close to solving our transportation crisis."

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