VIRGINIA GENERAL ASSEMBLY
Legislators Are at Standstill Over Transportation, Taxes
Sunday, June 29, 2008
RICHMOND -- Not so long ago, the Virginia General Assembly was known as the ultimate insider's club in which the people's business was done quietly, precisely and efficiently. Backroom deals ruled the day.
But now, one of the oldest continuous deliberative bodies in the United States is paralyzed, with its leaders unable or unwilling to negotiate, according to numerous legislators.
During the unsuccessful first week of a special legislative session on transportation, efforts to hash out an agreement were held hostage to partisanship, a failure to communicate and an unwillingness to budge from hardened stances.
"The legislature is a different animal than it was 10 years ago," said Del. Thomas Davis Rust (R-Fairfax). "It's become a lot more partisan. It's a small version of the U.S. Congress, a lot more acrimonious. It's going on everywhere. It's a sign of the times. It's gotten a lot more nasty."
After the state Supreme Court ruled in February that a key part of last year's landmark transportation plan was unconstitutional, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and the state legislature realized they had to fix it.
But Kaine and his fellow Democrats in the state Senate staked out vastly different positions on where to find the cash. Republicans in the House of Delegates had other thoughts entirely.
"Everybody is doing their own thing," Sen. John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke) said. "Everybody has dug in their heels."
Over the past several years, as parties in power have shifted in the House, Senate and governor's mansion, the art of reaching a deal has become more difficult. GOP and Democratic negotiators have reached deals on mental health reform and other issues. But on taxes and roads, both sides are more rigid.
That's partly because no one is talking, legislators say. Kaine had his idea, and Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw and House Speaker William J. Howell had theirs. None are all that similar.
"People are cordial. No one is yelling and screaming. But as far as sitting down, negotiating a solution, I don't think anybody is doing that," Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) said. "We've got to find a way to get there."
Kaine and Saslaw (D-Fairfax) insist that a transportation plan include a statewide tax increase to close a $375 million deficit in the part of the budget used to maintain roads. They say it is pointless to fix the unconstitutional regional transportation plans without a larger statewide solution because Virginia law requires that money be spent on road maintenance before new projects can be built.
But their solutions differ. Saslaw wants a gas tax; Kaine does not and seeks to get the money elsewhere.