By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 15, 2008
RICHMOND, May 14 -- Virginia Democratic leaders are divided over how to raise money to build and fix roads, a rift that threatens to dash Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's hopes of enacting a statewide tax increase this year.
The internal battle between House and Senate Democrats over what taxes should be increased represents a turnaround in Virginia politics. For much of this decade, it has been moderate and conservative Republicans who have been divided, resulting in stalled efforts to enact taxes or fees to relieve traffic congestion and repair the state's aging network of highways.
Now Democrats in the General Assembly are feuding among themselves over the $1.1 billion tax proposal Kaine (D) unveiled Monday. Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) lashed out at House Democratic leaders Wednesday, underscoring Kaine's limited influence with even Democrats when it comes to the transportation debate.
Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), a likely candidate for governor next year, said, "Governor Kaine wanted the Democrats in the House and the Senate to get behind one set of proposals, and that is just not going to happen."
Disagreements between Senate and House Democratic leaders have been building for weeks, though Democrats are still more unified than the GOP was when it held both chambers of the General Assembly from 1999 until this year.
Saslaw has been pitted against House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) and Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), also a candidate for governor, in trying to lobby Kaine over how he should put together his proposal.
Saslaw, backed by many Senate Democrats, wants an increase in the state's 17.5-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax, which hasn't been raised since 1986. Armstrong and Moran, who are spearheading efforts by Democrats to gain the majority in next year's elections, oppose a gas tax increase, citing the record price of fuel at the pump. Kaine agrees.
"I just don't think we can impose [a gas tax] on the public when they are already paying three dollars and 60 cents a gallon," Armstrong said. "We all have constituents that are struggling to put gas in their car."
Kaine and Democrats commissioned a poll six weeks ago that found more than 80 percent of residents oppose a 15-cent-a-gallon increase in the gas tax.
Saslaw shot back at the House Democrats: "I don't run the state on polls, and if Brian and Ward want to run the state on the polls, that is their problem."
On Monday, after failing to get a consensus between House and Senate Democrats, Kaine unveiled a proposal that does not include an increase in the gas tax.
Kaine instead wants higher taxes on car sales and an increase in vehicle registration fees. Kaine's plan also includes a 1-cent sales tax increase in the state's two most congested areas, Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
Saslaw has vowed that Senate Democrats will rewrite Kaine's proposal so it also includes an increase in the gas tax, perhaps as little as 6 cents over the next six years.
Saslaw said Kaine's plan should include a way to charge out-of-state motorists for the costs associated with maintaining Virginia's highways.
"To me, the out-of-state people ought to be paying this bill," Saslaw said. "Ward Armstrong and Brian Moran want to lay this entire thing on the people of Virginia."
Moran responded, "If you talk to your neighbors and your friends, you will find out people are hurting when they fill up their gas tanks."
But even though many agree with Kaine's decision not to push for a gas tax increase, most House Democrats have also been slow to embrace Kaine's proposal.
"Right now, I am in the mode of getting feedback from my constituents," said Del. C. Charles Caputo (D-Fairfax).
Armstrong said "not every House member is enamored with every piece of [Kaine's] plan," but he said he is confident that a sizable majority will ultimately decide to support it after "some minor changes are made."
Armstrong also sought to play down divisions between House and Senate Democrats. "Neither Dick nor I am going to let this create any serious or permanent divisions between our two caucuses," Armstrong said.
The rift among Democrats is giving Republicans political cover in coming out against any effort to raise taxes this year. House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) questioned why Kaine called a special session for next month before locking up support from Democrats for his plan.
"How is this not a waste of the taxpayers' money to have us come down to Richmond and look at each other?" Griffith said. "Is the governor planning a tiddlywinks tournament?"
Delacey Skinner, a Kaine spokesman, responded: "I can't think of a single example of a regular session or a special session that we have gone into where everyone agreed on everything. . . . It sounds to me like the Republican leadership in the House simply isn't interested in addressing the transportation challenges we face."