Political Legacies in Danger After Transportation Ruling

Del. Robert Marshall, hand raised, and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, rear, after the Supreme Court struck down parts of the transportation plan.
Del. Robert Marshall, hand raised, and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, rear, after the Supreme Court struck down parts of the transportation plan. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)
By Tim Craig and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 2, 2008

RICHMOND -- The Virginia Supreme Court's decision Friday to strike down parts of the state's transportation funding plan threatens to undermine the legacies of the state's top politicians and renew the bitter partisan tax fight that has consumed Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and the legislature.

The ruling came as a particularly acrimonious legislative session was winding down. Now, Democratic and Republican leaders engaged in this year's budget fight will have to try to fix the flaw found by the Supreme Court.

Specifically, Kaine (D) and House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) are being forced to salvage a transportation plan that had symbolized a rare bipartisan effort and was to help solidify their places in state history.

Instead, the ballyhooed plan has been seriously compromised. The Supreme Court's ruling that it is unconstitutional for regional authorities in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to impose taxes and fees, coming on the heels of the controversy over abusive-driving fees, could erode public confidence in the state's ability to fix its traffic problems, legislators and others said.

Robert D. Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said Kaine and Howell's "signature accomplishment of the last two years today is laying in tatters. They are in this together."

Kaine and House and Senate leaders stressed that they will be able to fix problems raised by the court.

House Republicans might try before the General Assembly adjourns Saturday to get a measure approved that would make local governments in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads responsible for raising the regional taxes. Kaine and others say that a special session of the General Assembly will be needed this spring to deal with the issue.

But Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) said that the court decision is also "symptomatic of some of the problems we have" -- legislators getting "too cute" in coming up with ways to avoid tough decisions.

"People try to find creative ways to do things that should be done very straightforward," said Stolle, who helped broker last year's compromise.

Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Chesterfield) agreed. "This reflects our inability to truly accept the constitutional responsibility we all have to live up to down here," he said. "Democrats and Republicans both bought into this and are to blame."

Although Kaine and Howell were two key players in last year's debate on the transportation bill, most of the state's leading politicians played some role in enacting the deal.

After taking office in 2006, Kaine pushed for an increase in the sales tax on vehicles to raise money for transportation. He won support from the then-Republican-controlled Senate, but the Republican majority in the House opposed the move.

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