Political Legacies in Danger After Transportation Ruling

By Tim Craig and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 2, 2008; C01

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.

Kaine and Democrats vowed to make the GOP's inability to fix the transportation problem a key election issue. After Democrat James Webb unseated Republican Sen. George Allen in 2006 -- illustrating a possible Democratic leaning in Virginia -- Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) and other top GOP officials tried to broker an agreement between the House and Senate.

Unable to get his conservative caucus to support a statewide tax increase, Howell and Senate Republicans agreed on a compromise that included the regional taxing authorities, new borrowing, the abusive-driving fees and a $10 increase in vehicle registration fees.

The bill was passed last year over objections from former Senate president John H. Chichester, a Republican who retired last year, and then-Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax).

Chichester and Saslaw, now majority leader, both predicted that the plan would not pass constitutional muster.

After initially threatening to veto it, Kaine amended the GOP plan and embraced it as his own, saying in an interview late last year that he considered it a key part of his legacy.

When he spoke about the transportation plan in his State of the Commonwealth address in January, Kaine told lawmakers that they should "celebrate this achievement" because it resulted in the "first significant infusion of funds into our transportation system in two decades."

Designed to raise $1.1 billion annually, the plan was supposed to achieve a 44 percent increase in transit funding and a 35 percent increase in highway construction dollars.

But the accomplishment was overshadowed by the difficulty in passing the legislation, its reliance on the regional boards to impose new taxes and outrage over the abusive-driving fees.

A Washington Post poll in October found that a majority of likely voters, 56 percent, said they thought the plan spent too little on major transportation projects.

Kaine and Howell will have to work together again to address concerns or work with their parties to scrap the transportation plan and write a new one.

Asked Friday whether he made a mistake by signing the bill, Kaine responded: "Absolutely not."

Howell called the Supreme Court decision a "bump in the road but certainly not the end-all, be-all."

"The Supreme Court has left us a way to fix this," Howell said.

But Senate Democrats, who used the transportation issue in last fall's election to win the four seats needed to regain control of the chamber, might use the court decision to push for a broader fix of the state's transportation problems.

Last month, the Senate approved a nickel increase in the state's 17.5-cents-a-gallon gas tax over five years to address a shortfall in the budget used to maintain roads.

The state's gas tax was last raised in 1986, but the House Finance Committee refused to vote on an increase this year.

Saslaw said the Supreme Court decision might provide an opening to address all of the state's transportation funding needs at the same time.

"This may provide us with a chance . . . to do it correctly," Saslaw said. "We are going to address the whole thing."

But House Republicans say they are not likely to budge from their opposition to a statewide tax increase.

"There are better ways to do it, and we will find the better ways," said Howell, who said the state's gas tax would have to be raised by more than 25 cents a gallon to generate as much money as last year's bill was designed to do.

With Democrats just five seats away from having control of the House, Howell could be forced to weigh the wishes of his conservative caucus against a potential backlash from voters weary of sitting in traffic. Kaine must decide whether he wants to remain linked to the potentially flawed regional plans or renew his push for a statewide tax solution, even though that approach could lead to legislative gridlock.

Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott) predicted that neither party would have an advantage if the transportation issue is not resolved quickly.

"The citizens out there just want it fixed," Kilgore said. "They don't care who gets the credit. They don't care who fixes it. They just say: 'Fix my roads.' "

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