The Virginia House of Delegates today killed a bill that supposedly would have made it easier for five Northern Virginia jurisdictions to impose a controversial 4 per cent tax on gasoline sales to meet the region's soaring Metro transit costs.
Unlike last year when all but one of the Northern Virginia House members supported a similar measure, the region's delegates today split over the bill, with many calling the tax unneeded and Metro poorly run.
In another action, the Seante approved a House bill that would decriminalize minor traffic offenses and approved a $125-million-bond package proposed Monday by Gov. Mills E. Godwin. The House Appropriations Committee met twice today on the bond issue, but failed to vote on the proposal, prompting fears among some legislators that the issue could force the current session beyond its scheduled Friday adjournment.
The House, in a slow-moving session that ran into the night, killed a key proposal of a state government reorganization commission and rejected a Senate plan to have the state pay a portion of the salaries of local school board members.
Althought the House last year approved the Northern Virginia gasoline tax measure by a 78-17 vote, backers could muster only 35 votes this year for the bill, which would have raised about $12 million a year. The opponents, many of them from Fairfax County, numbered 56.
Even if the measure had passed, legislators had conceded that it would be difficult for the tax to have been imposed. Under Houe Finance Committee amendments it would have had to be approved by the counties of Fairfax and Arlington and Alexandria, Falls Church and Fairfax City.
Fairfax City vetoed imposition of the tax last year and legislators opposed to the measure warned today that the city was ready to do the same again this year.
Del. Warren G. Barry (R-Fairfax), calling Metro "a necessary evil"led the attack on the tax measure, citing a projected Fairfax County budget surplus this year and a planned 9 per cent increase in Arlington's budget next year. "The first thing you have to ask yourself is "Is this bill necessary?" Barry said.
He claimed that sponsors of the bill could not prove "the need" for the tax. He argued that it would drive Virginia motorists and businesses into Maryland and Washington to purchase gasoline at about 2.5 cents cheaper than at Northern Virginia stations.
Futhermore, Barry charged that Fairfax County has no guarantee that the county "will see one mile" of Metro rail under current revisions to the 100-mile, $5 billion system. That means "people in D.C. are riding in D.C. while they are looking to Northern Virginia to pay the deficit" for the subway system, he said.
Del. Richared R.G. Hobson (D-Alexandria) admitted that chances for enactment of the tax by the localities were slim, but appealed to the House to pass the measure in order to give Northern Virginia officials a chance to reason together" with Fairfax City officials.
Even before the House voted on the bill, it overwhelmingly amended the proposal to make the sales tax apply only to the base price of the gasoline and not to the current federal and state gasoline taxes as well. The effect would be to cut the projected revenues by 20 per cent.
Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington) said the measure was essential if local governments in Northern Virginia were to ease the burden of Metro deficits on property taxpayers. "We're just asking for your help to help ourselves," he said.
Although all of the delegates from Arlington and Alexdria supported the tax, the Fairfax County delegation split 5 to 4 against the bill.
Joining Barry in opposition were Dels. Richard L. Saslaw, a Delmocrat, and Republicans Vincent F. Callahan, James H. Dillard, and Wyatt B. Dunrette Jr. Del. Robert E. Harris (R-Fairfax), the lone Northern Virginian to oppose the tax last year, was absent today, but he had announced his opposition to the measure previously.
Under the traffic offense bill passed by the Senate, minor offenses such as speeding 19 miles an hour of less, having an outdated inspection sticker or poor muffler, would become "violations of public order" and cease being classified as crimes. The bill also would allow persons arrested for minor traffic offenses to pay their fines by mail, avoiding trips to often-crowded traffic courts in some areas that require personal appearances to answer many traffic infractions.
The bond proposals were approved in the Senate without much argument, except for the $5 million proposed for improving existing state parks. When Sen. Dudley J. Emick (D-Botetourt) rose to call the money for parks "frills," three other senators leaped up to defend the park money. "Call it soul food," argued Sen. James T. Edmunds (D-Lunenburg). The vote was 30 to 8 in favor of passage.
The Senate also approved, after debate between the "country boys" and the urban area representatives, a bill that establishes a new formula for apportioning state money for secondary roads. The formula will mean more money for everyone, but Fairfax County will gain more than any other locality.
An amendment guaranteeing rural areas at least as much money as they receive was approved. "We're heard before how we should have faith that we'll get what we're promised," said Sen. Vigil Goode, from the southwestern Piedmont county of Franklin. "It won't hurt you all to make sure we get it."
In the House, a bill to create a new position in the governor's cabinet - to be called the secretary of natural resources - won a 52-to-46 victory during a morning session. But after what Del. James B. Murray (D-Albemarle), chief sponsor of the bill, claimed was "a good deal of lobbying by farming groups" during a lunch recess, the House killed the bill, 50 to 43, on a second vote.
Because the bill called for creation of a new office it needed 51 votes to pass. Murrey later said the defeat was a "major" loss for a state commission that during the current session has written 27 bills restructuring the state's government.
During today's debate backers of the bill cited 50-year-old statements by the last man of effect a major reorganization of the state's government, the late Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr., in an effort to gain support for the bill.
But the bill was opposed by the House's leadership and Del. Owen B. Pickett (D-Virginia Beach), a member of the management comission."If you believe this isn't going to cost anything, then you believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy," Pickett told the House during the initial debate.
Fears of the costs of the school board payment bill helped killed that measure by a 57-to-53 vote, Del. Thomas J. Rothrock (D-Fairfax), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, attacked the bill, claiming it would add $1.5 million a year to the state's budget by requiring the state to pay up to half ot he minimum salaries for school board members.
The Senate spent most of the afternoon in the tedious routine of approving a great logjam of bills that must be dealt with before the scheduled adjournment Friday.
Among the measures routinely approved was one requiring at least one free toilet in all public theaters, meeting places and transportation terminals. Asked to explain the bill, Sen. Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton) snapped "Everybody's entitled to one free."
They postponed action on amendments to the freedom of information act and death penalty.
The last argument of the day involved a resolution ordering a study of "the problems of Johnson grass infestation in Virginia."
Johnson grass is a wild, noxious weed that grows rapidly. "If there's anything I know something about, it's Johnson grass," argued Sen. William Truban (R-Shenandoah), a farmer. "I can tell you all you need to know, you don't need a study. There's nothing you can do about it, you can't burn it, you can't dig it up, you can only spend a lot of money on chemicals to get rid of it."
Nevertheless, the study was approved - with only Truban voting against it.