Legislators Are at Standstill Over Transportation, Taxes

By Tim Craig and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 29, 2008; C07

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.

Howell (R-Stafford) and his GOP colleagues counter that the regional plans should be reinstated immediately but that a statewide tax increase should not happen at least until the economy rebounds and the Department of Transportation undergoes an audit.

Each side staked out its position four months ago, and there have been few substantive discussions since then. Kaine called at least two meetings between House and Senate leaders of both parties shortly after the Supreme Court ruling but could not broker a compromise. And a handful of legislators, including several from Northern Virginia, have met behind closed doors or chatted on the phone over the past several weeks in hopes of coming up with a deal to take back to their leaders. But they have not found common ground.

Kaine and Howell talk, but rarely in detail about transportation.

Last month, when Kaine was asked about transportation, he told reporters he had just met with the speaker. But when Howell was asked about the meeting, he said the two sat next to each other at a dinner.

"We have had very cordial talks," Howell said. "He is a nice guy to talk to, but I don't think we talked about transportation. I asked him about" presidential candidate Barack Obama.

On Thursday, after the powerful House Rules Committee, chaired by Howell, killed Kaine's proposal for a $1.1 billion annual tax increase to pay for transportation, Kaine summoned the speaker to his office. The meeting lasted only a few minutes, according to Howell.

"I didn't quite understand why we were there. . . . We just sort of looked at each other," said House Majority Whip M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), who accompanied Howell to the meeting and said part of the discussion centered around what they all had planned for the Fourth of July.

When asked about the meeting later, Kaine described it as productive.

"They told me some things that were very important for me to know, and I am glad I know them," Kaine said.

Kaine said he expects efforts to reach a compromise to pick up in the coming days, including more meetings with the House and Senate leaders.

He said Thursday that he is willing to consider a variety of options for raising enough revenue to better maintain the state's roads.

After the legislature rebuffed his initial efforts to raise taxes for transportation shortly after he took office in 2006, Kaine embraced a strategy of letting the General Assembly try to reach its own consensus. Last year, Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) and other state and federal leaders brokered a deal on transportation between House and Senate Republicans. Kaine largely stayed out of the way until he amended the final product.

But given the recent successes of the anti-tax movement within the Republican Party, including the unseating of two moderate GOP senators last year, few Republicans want to be seen as willing to negotiate on a statewide tax increase.

"I think the impasse right now is that it is just two different points of view of where we need to go and how we need to get there," said Howell, who added that many House Republicans have already compromised by agreeing to regional taxes.

Delacey Skinner, Kaine's communications director, said Kaine can't start serious negotiations with House Republicans as long as they have "a line in the sand" opposing all statewide tax or fee increases.

"It is difficult to reach a consensus when . . . the people who are supposed to be sitting at the table are standing against the wall with their arms crossed," Skinner said.

But Kaine's influence has appeared limited, even with some Democrats, despite his aggressive role last year in helping his party retake the Senate.

Shortly after the Supreme Court decision, Kaine held meetings with Senate and House Democrats to see if they could unite behind a plan.

Saslaw insisted on an increase in the gas tax. House Democrats, who are up for reelection next year and hopeful they can regain the majority, balked at pushing for a gas tax increase with prices at the pumps so high and because polls showed it would be unpopular. After trying for weeks to bring the two sides together, Kaine and Saslaw submitted separate bills, which Republicans said made it easier for them to oppose both.

Senate Democrats, who don't have to seek reelection until 2011, passed a phased-in 6-cent increase in the gas tax and higher taxes in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, partially offset by a reduction in the sales tax on food.

As the House gears up to consider the bill July 9, almost everyone in Richmond knows it will be killed. But Saslaw said he sees little incentive in trying to broker a deal with Howell, even though the two often have cordial conversations about issues not related to transportation.

"They are doing what they think is right, and we are doing what we think is right," Saslaw said.

House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) put it more colorfully: "This is [one of] the oldest deliberative legislative [bodies] in the world. This is not a banana republic."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company