With the Special Session Stalled, Democrats Are Stuck

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 3, 2008

RICHMOND Shortly after Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) called a special session to try to tackle transportation funding issues, the governor gave a blunt assessment of what he hoped to accomplish by advocating a tax increase even though he didn't have the support of the Republican-controlled House of Delegates.

"It will be very productive to either try to find a solution or make it plain to people who are standing in the way," Kaine said in an interview with The Washington Post in May. "We are going to make something happen or let the public see who is obstructing, and frankly, that is one of the reasons why Democrats have won elections in Virginia."

But 10 days into the special session on transportation -- legislators have been on vacation for six of those days -- it remains uncertain whether any solution will be found or whether the governor will score any of those political points.

The General Assembly already has killed Kaine's proposal for a $1.1 billion tax increase to pay for roads and rail. It appears unlikely that the legislature will approve new statewide money for transportation, and the issue might not be brought up again until after the 2009 governor's race.

Kaine might think that voters will pin the blame on Republicans, but there is little in this session for Democrats, either. And by pushing the issue now, before achieving a consensus among legislators on how to proceed, Kaine might have guaranteed he will leave office without fulfilling one of his major policy goals.

After last year's transportation plan unraveled through a combination of court decisions and the unpopularity of the abusive-driver fees, Kaine said he had no choice but to revive the debate. Kaine, however, had the authority to decide when and how the General Assembly would try to address the issue.

If he waited until the regularly scheduled legislative session in January, some construction projects in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads would be delayed by at least a year. If he called a special session in the fall, the issues of taxes and transportation would be brought to the forefront as Virginia might become a focus in the presidential race.

Kaine opted for a summer special session, but that didn't leave him much time to do the legwork needed to ensure its success. It also resulted in havoc in the Senate: The Democrats need every one of their 21 votes in the 40-member chamber to pass a revenue bill, and they have to adjourn every time more than one Democratic senator is out of town or the GOP would take charge because Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) can break a tie.

Besides showcasing Senate Democrats' tenuous grip on power, the special session has resulted in a split among various wings of the party. GOP lawmakers, meanwhile, appear unified heading into next year's governor's race.

Senate Democrats want an increase in the gas tax as well as minor increases in the sales tax and new regional taxes in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, partially offset by a reduction in the sales tax on food. Kaine, backed by House Democrats, shied away from raising the gas tax and instead sought an increase in the sales tax on vehicle purchases.

The division has made it easier for Republicans in the House and Senate to oppose both proposals. Instead of being on the defensive, GOP legislators say they now have cover to come out against both plans, arguing to their constituents that even Democrats are opposed to raising some taxes and fees to build more roads.

"I think Tim Kaine is a good governor, but this whole special session could not have been handled worse, not only from the governor's office but from the Democratic leadership," said Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach). "His bill was so poor he could not even get a patron in the Senate. By the House rejecting what the Senate Democrats wouldn't even consider, it's hardly a political hammer by which to beat the Republicans."

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