Gilmore Seeks Cap on Trash
By R.H. Melton
In his most emphatic statement yet on one of the thorniest political problems of the new legislative session, Gilmore (R) described trash imports as "a significant threat to our environment."
The state "has a right -- and I would say a duty -- to ban the use of barges for the transportation of garbage on Virginia's waterways," said Gilmore, speaking to a joint session of 140 lawmakers in the governor's annual State of the Commonwealth address.
Environmental advocates reacted to Gilmore's remarks with glee, while waste industry officials questioned the constitutionality of his plan -- even as they pledged to work with the governor to hammer out compromise legislation.
"I'm ecstatic," said Jim Sharp, who runs Campaign Virginia, a group promoting cleaner water. The weight of Gilmore's office "gives us a lot of oomph," he added.
Christine Meket, spokeswoman for trash giant Waste Management in Virginia, said that garbage barges are the safest way of hauling trash and that each one offsets 200 to 300 tractor-trailers that otherwise would ply Virginia highways on their way to landfills.
The Washington Post disclosed this week that Meket's company had signed an agreement with a barge company that would allow Waste Management to increase the amount of trash going to Virginia's five landfills by as much as one-third. The news outraged Gilmore and surprised lawmakers who already were becoming uneasy about the state's growing reputation as the East Coast's dumping ground.
Today, Meket said the industry has done a good job policing itself and monitoring for environmental safety, "but we haven't done a very good job of relaying that [message] to the public."
Gilmore, savoring a vibrant Virginia economy and a first year in office that was relatively free of controversy, touched on other accomplishments and goals during his 41-minute address, the first such speech by a Virginia governor to be broadcast on the Internet.
Tax cuts, help for Virginia's time-honored tobacco industry and $245 million in lottery profits for education in the next two years were just some of the goodies Gilmore pledged, courtesy of a state budget surplus of nearly $900 million.
Some of the ideas had been championed for years by Republicans, others traded between the GOP and Democrats, and tonight Gilmore made many of them his own.
A 2 percentage-point cut in Virginia's 4 1/2 percent sales tax on food was a good example of metamorphosis in Virginia politics. From the speaker's dais in the ornate House of Delegates chamber, Gilmore singled out Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), who first proposed such a tax rollback as a freshman 31 years ago -- after winning election on that issue.
"The food tax turns the grocery store cash register into the government's personal piggy bank," Gilmore said. "It takes more from working families of modest means when the government needs to take less. . . .
"Delegate Callahan, you believed then, as I do now, that the government shouldn't tax the essential needs," Gilmore said.
Earlier in the day, Democratic leaders in the assembly said they would fight to eliminate all of the food tax immediately, an idea Gilmore opposes. "I'd consider proposals to accelerate the phase-out, if it's done responsibly," said Gilmore, who wants four years to trim two cents off the rate, at an eventual cost of $245 million a year.
After the speech, Del. Kenneth R. Plum, of Reston, chairman of the state Democratic Party, was crowing over Gilmore's many spending initiatives. "That's one of the best Democratic speeches I've ever heard," Plum said.
The food tax is one of the hottest political issues of this election year, when all 40 seats of the state Senate and 100 seats in the House are on the ballot. Gilmore hopes to exploit that tax, his continuing car-tax cut, tuition cuts and his spending initiatives to consolidate the extraordinary Republican gains of recent years.
While far different from his predecessor, George Allen (R), Gilmore -- a methodical former prosecutor who relishes his no-nonsense and no-flair reputation -- will preside over what could be a high-water mark of Republican rule in the governor's office and legislature.
Several other GOP executives came before him, including three in a row in the 1970s, but Gilmore is in many ways the chief beneficiary of a dramatic change in state voting patterns that have lifted Virginia's once-moribund GOP.
"We were asleep at the wheel," said state Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, a senior Democrat from Fairfax County. "We were not organized; we didn't go about things in a professional, methodical manner and had no good candidates."
"There was a changing dynamic, and we didn't see it," Saslaw added. "We essentially surrendered the playing field at election time."
Sen. Janet D. Howell, a outspoken Democrat in a Republican-leaning Fairfax district, agreed.
Speaking directly to voters and promptly addressing their needs "has always been our strength, and we kind of lost it for a couple of years," Howell said. "We need to recapture the initiative."
It was unclear tonight what price tag Gilmore's barge ban, caps on trash and tougher landfill inspections would carry, just as it was uncertain whether the ban could pass constitutional muster.
John W. Daniel II, a former state natural resources secretary who now lobbies for Waste Management, dismissed the proposed ban as "patently unconstitutional," saying state law should have "an even-handed approach" toward out-of-state trash.
The U.S. Constitution's commerce clause permits only Congress to regulate waste imports, and U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) said yesterday that he is filing legislation that would carve out a special exception giving Virginia localities control over interstate trash.
"Communities would be given the right to say, 'No,' " Robb said.
Saslaw raised the specter of staggering increases in truck traffic in the Washington region if Gilmore wins his barge ban.
"If it means another thousand trucks a day coming through Northern Virginia, maybe we need to ban trash altogether," Saslaw said.
A barge ban, which was not embraced by Gilmore during the 1997 governor's race, could prove to be another of those populist ideas that could gain momentum from the developed suburbs of Northern Virginia to the landfill communities along the James River in the state's southern tier. But for the next 45 days of the assembly session, it could be both politically and regionally divisive, with Gilmore and Republicans favoring the ban and Democrats -- long reliant on financial contributions from waste haulers -- fighting it.
Tonight, though, in the relative calm of Day 1 of the legislature, Gilmore was preaching inclusion.
"The state of the commonwealth is excellent," he said, "because Virginians are advancing and seizing the future."
Staff writers Donald P. Baker and Craig Timberg contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company