Virginia Senate Finance Chairman Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond), seeking to force Gov. Gerald L. Baliles to support $100 million a year in new highway taxes and fees, indicated today he may hold hostage a resolution establishing Baliles' blue ribbon commission on highway reform.
"We'll see how these tax bills fare," said Willey, sponsor of the bills that would raise gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees to pay for highway construction.
Baliles, who has said he hopes to make transportation the keystone of his new administration, put off endorsing Willey's tax measures this week. He has called for creation of the commission by the end of this month and a special session in September to deal with its findings.
"He's been meeting with Willey or talking with him every day," said Chris Bridge, Baliles' press secretary.
Willey was given complete control today over the fate of Baliles' resolution establishing the commission when the Senate Rules Committee referred the measure to his Finance Committee rather than acting on it itself. The commission is to have a budget of $250,000.
State Sen. Dudley J. (Buzz) Emick (D-Botetourt), a member of the Rules Committee, called the commission resolution a PPOW -- potential prisoner of war. "It's obvious to those of us who are keen observers of the legislature," Emick joked.
Willey has kept up a string of critical comments all week that legislators say are designed to test Baliles early.
"I've been here for 10 governors," said Willey, 75 years old and a member of the legislature since 1952. "They come and they go."
On Wednesday, Willey said, "The governor doesn't run this state, the General Assembly does . . . . Jerry Baliles [is] talking about what he's going to do. He can't do a damn thing without the General Assembly."
Despite Willey's power in the Senate, legislators say many members are not eager to vote for new gasoline taxes and registration fees if they can wait until the special session in September.
Legislative aides say the commission, which is to include several former governors as well as legislators, would help justify the increases when all 140 members of the legislature are up for reelection in 1987.
In addition, Willey's tax measures have not received much public support in the House, which could block any tax bill approved by the Senate, forcing a standoff between the two often-fractious chambers of the assembly.
Willey wants the increased revenue to help pay for construction of highways while Baliles wants to restructure both how the state highway funds are raised and spent and the operation of the sprawling highway department, which officials say still operates much like it did 40 years go.
Baliles said this week the commission should determine how much money -- perhaps as much as $1 billion -- the state could raise in bond issues, tolls or other methods to finance highway construction.
The proposal was a sharp departure from the state's traditional pay-as-you-go policies that date back to the 1920s when conservative leaders vowed to keep Virginia from amassing long-term debts.