N. Va. Hopes to Share Wealth of Economy
By R.H. Melton
RICHMOND Northern Virginia lawmakers are hoping that the state's robust economy will allow historic increases in aid for the region's schools and roads during the General Assembly session that begins in three weeks.
Luck could be with them because the election-year session may concentrate on back-home issues. Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) is presiding over a government enjoying double-digit increases in revenue, and he understands that Northern Virginia gets a big share of the credit.
At the same time, the local delegation will be keeping an eye out for Northern Virginia's information technology community, perhaps with tax incentives that would bolster Gilmore's promotion of that crucial sector.
"Northern Virginia has the governor's attention, more than it has in the past," said John T. "Til" Hazel Jr., a local business leader who has tangled with several governors on issues such as higher education and transportation.
"He realizes it as a major source of voting strength, which like Hampton Roads is demanding a voice," Hazel said. "Both regions are evidencing major needs. He's responding, though all of these programs are built on the assumption the economy stays healthy."
But Northern Virginia will face competition from other regions. Pierce R. Homer, a veteran lobbyist for the Prince William County government, said the region will be competing against proposals such as a $10 million light-rail experiment in Hampton Roads.
Area lawmakers also will take a major role in the assembly's leadership. Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William) is ascending as chairman of the Transportation Committee of the House of Delegates, while Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (R-Fairfax) is in the running to be speaker if the House, now evenly split, turns Republican in statewide elections a year from now. Del. Kenneth R. Plum of Reston, the Democratic Party chairman, may have his hands full next fall holding onto the party's House seats.
Transportation funding dominates the agenda of Northern Virginia legislators because they hear constant complaints from constituents about the Capital Beltway and Interstate 66. But some question whether Washington's highway problems will seem like a major issue to lawmakers from elsewhere in the state.
Homer contends that far-reaching ideas such as a Western Bypass around Washington or an expensive light-rail train to Dulles International Airport are not likely to get major attention in Richmond.
But those living close to Washington plug away. Del. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax) already has called on Gilmore to send $100 million to Northern Virginia for a series of projects, including the "mixing bowl" in Springfield, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and improvements to Route 1 and Telegraph Road.
"Traffic gridlock isn't just an inconvenience. It damages our ability to attract jobs for Virginia residents and endangers lives in our communities," Puller told Gilmore in a letter this month.
A number of the region's interest groups, led by the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce, will be pushing for new spending authority to solve transit problems at home.
The chamber believes the region is in crisis and needs $215 million immediately for transportation. The group will support a 1 percent regional sales tax to reinvest in local roads as a last resort, said Nancy Fulco, a chamber vice president.
Rollison said Gilmore's cuts in the property tax on cars on vehicles and his proposed reduction in the sales tax on food mean it will be difficult to pass new regional tax bills for roads, no matter how desperate Northern Virginia is.
"A regional tax hasn't gotten any traction," Rollison said.
Development issues also could be important for the Northern Virginia delegation. Some counties will seek authority from the state -- which for decades has jealously protected its power over land use -- for authority to levy impact fees, transfer development rights, require adequate public facilities before land can be developed and manage growth in ways pioneered by jurisdictions such as Montgomery County in Maryland.
There is a similarly urgent air about support for the region's technology industry, which Gilmore has made a priority since taking office in January.
He created a Cabinet-level secretary position for high technology and plucked one of the region's top executives, Donald W. Upson, to take the state into the 21st century on information issues. The governor wants to make George Mason University in Fairfax a magnet for research in that area and last week said he was sending $18 million in new funding to the school.
Some industry groups such as the Northern Virginia Technology Council, which represents 1,000 area companies employing 150,000 people, will be pushing for incentives to help fill more than 20,000 technology jobs in the area. The council says those jobs would have a payroll of more than $1 billion annually.
One idea from the council is a tax credit for companies that provide technology training. The council also wants the state to earmark a small percentage of unemployment insurance surpluses for worker training.
"Virginia must do more and we must do it quickly, for we are in a race with other regions and other countries to center the newest and continuously emerging innovations here," said council Chairman Kathy Clark, chief executive of Landmark Systems Corp.
Tuesday: Cutting college tuition.
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