N. Va. Strikes Pay Dirt in Legislative Session
By Craig Timberg
RICHMONDóBad intersections will get fixed, narrow roads widened. Schools will trade trailer classrooms for real ones. And more police will hit the streets.
Such was the bounty that Northern Virginia's increasingly powerful and unified delegation of state lawmakers won from the General Assembly session that ended here Saturday.
The 24 delegates and 10 senators -- one-quarter of each house -- were not able to push through new controls on sprawl or the billions of dollars needed to unclog the region's rush hour. But they won most fights they picked and burnished the delegation's reputation as the most admired of the assembly.
"We're always told," said Del. Jerrauld C. Jones (D-Norfolk), a member of the fractious Hampton Roads delegation, "that the Northern Virginia delegation is the one that we need to emulate."
Most Northern Virginia lawmakers left here smiling Saturday at the accomplishments of the session, including $104 million in highway improvements, $57 million in state lottery profits for schools and $46 million in new police department aid.
"Northern Virginia has fared better in those areas than they've ever done," said Pierce R. Homer, lobbyist for Prince William County for 13 years. "That's a quantum leap."
The delegation lost one of its leaders, retiring Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax), but saw the ascension of another, Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (Fairfax), who became the first Republican to preside over the powerful House Appropriations Committee since Reconstruction.
Several other local lawmakers moved into new positions of power, and Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (Fairfax) emerged on the short list of contenders to become House speaker if Republicans win control of that chamber in November's legislative elections.
"It's probably the best [session] we've ever had," said Callahan, a 31-year veteran who was key to several budget victories.
There were bitter fights among members. Northern Virginia provided the main antagonists in battles related to Hugh Finn, the severely brain-damaged man whose wife fought to have his feeding tube removed at a Manassas nursing home last fall. Local lawmakers found themselves on opposite sides on whether to create license plates featuring the Confederate flag and an antiabortion slogan, and whether to require a 24-hour wait for abortions.
But on issues of regional importance, there was seldom dissent.
The biggest accomplishment -- and one still in danger of a veto from Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) -- was $104 million in new highway money for the region. Though not enough to unclog the region's main arteries, it should ease trouble spots on key secondary routes.
In typical fashion for the delegation, the money was divvied up before the session began so that lawmakers from each area would have a victory to take home to voters. Prince William County will have two intersections on Route 1 rebuilt. Loudoun County will get a safer Route 15 north of Leesburg. Fairfax County will see Routes 7 and 123 widened. And Alexandria and Arlington will get improvements at Metrorail stations.
And also typically, the delegation put aside partisanship and made allies in other regions to get the package through the General Assembly despite the reservations of Gilmore.
Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William) and Del. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax) joined with several rural, downstate lawmakers pushing for money to finish rebuilding Route 58 along the southern edge of the state. The two delegations agreed to split a $208 million package of new highway bonds that most expect the governor to sign reluctantly.
Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax) called the session "good" but added it "should have been even better. With a billion-dollar surplus, we really should have been able to do better on transportation. . . . The reason we didn't is because we didn't have executive leadership."
Northern Virginia scored big on Gilmore's proposals to send state lottery profits back to local school districts, which will add $57 million to the region's school aid by June 2000. The governor's plan to fully fund state aid to local police for the first time since 1992 means $46 million to the region's departments, compared with $18 million last year.
The region's high-tech companies such as Loudoun-based America Online also won a victory in a bill making it illegal to send massive amounts of junk e-mail known as "spam." The bill, which Gilmore intends to sign, will make sending spam a crime and give e-mail providers the right to sue offenders for damages.
The biggest loss of the session -- at least in the eyes of local officials in fast-growing counties -- was the failure of the General Assembly to pass any anti-sprawl measures. Loudoun in particular fought for tools to restrict new homes in areas without the roads or schools to support them.
Those bills died early in the session even as a bill repealing a growth-control tool used by Fauquier County passed.
Many lawmakers expect growth control to return with stronger support next year. There is also broad consensus that sharing state revenue with local governments -- another goal of fast-growing counties -- will be a priority next year. The General Assembly created a committee to study that issue.
"It takes time to adopt new approaches. It's an education process," said Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington). "Over time, [growth] will be addressed."
Backers of major league baseball in Northern Virginia also failed in their efforts to get a promise from the General Assembly to bankroll a stadium, despite Callahan's support for the idea. He did win a promise to consider state financing if a team decides to move to the area.
And some Northern Virginia lawmakers consider the ban on garbage barges a loss for their region because barges might have diverted hundreds of garbage-filled tractor-trailers each day away from Washington area highways.
But on matters involving money, the region's lawmakers called the session the best in memory.
"Northern Virginia," said Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax), "has made out like a bandit."
Staff writer Donald P. Baker contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company