Democratic legislative candidates in Northern Virginia called yesterday for a massive infusion of state money for transportation and accused Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) of neglecting the state's highway network.
Speaking at the Springfield Metro station, the candidates said they wanted half of every budget surplus set aside to ease traffic congestion. The state should raise an additional $71 million a year in transit funds by dedicating recordation taxes--fees that are paid when real estate is sold--that now go to local governments, they said.
In Richmond, state Democratic Chairman Kenneth R. Plum, a delegate from Fairfax, accused Gilmore of not addressing the transportation needs of the Washington suburbs.
"Northern Virginia, the economic engine of the state, is particularly hurt," Plum told reporters at a Capitol news conference. "This administration has been adamant in not responding."
Democrats said they hoped the two news conferences would set out broad campaign themes they can use in November, when all 100 seats in the House of Delegates and every spot in the 40-member Senate are on the ballot. The General Assembly is essentially split in half along party lines.
The Democrats' "Safety and Savings" package also included calls for improved school safety, hiring 2,000 teachers for middle and high schools, capping home assessments for the elderly and allowing patients to sue their HMOs.
Plum and other party leaders said their themes would resonate in urban and rural areas alike, but several of their points--particularly on traffic congestion--might resonate best in suburban areas such as Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Business leaders in Northern Virginia have often criticized the governor's policies on road construction.
Republicans swiftly pounced on the two media events, saying the Democrats offered few new ideas and, in fact, had frustrated Gilmore's efforts to hire new teachers. The Democrats, they said, were merely trying to lay the groundwork for higher taxes.
"The last gasp of a party running out of air," said Mark A. Miner, Gilmore's press secretary.
Noting the Democrats' previous stands against hiring as many teachers as the governor wanted, Miner added: "They're sending mixed signals to the public. What do they stand for? Nothing."
Chris LaCivita, executive director of the state GOP, said that with the legislative races "drawing near, the true Democrat agenda is now finally revealed. Using Virginia transportation needs as political cover for a hidden agenda of tax increases simply will not work."
Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr., an influential Republican from Fairfax County, was just as critical of the Democratic proposals, saying the rival party was trying to swipe long-held GOP ideas.
"These are terribly complex issues, but not thought through," Rust said. "And it's on our ground."
In Northern Virginia, Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) said Gilmore had ignored her area's transit troubles for too long, despite a huge budget surplus.
"Governor Gilmore had $1 billion to spend and didn't put a nickel into transportation," Howell said. "He just seems to want us to imagine roads and they'll be built."
Del. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (Fairfax) accused Republicans of studying transportation problems to death.
"Talk about head-in-the-sand thinking [that] there is no problem," Puller said. "My district is between the Mixing Bowl and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge," referring to the two main highway projects in Northern Virginia.
The candidates said they wanted to improve school safety by increasing spending on alternative schools and on police officers who are stationed full time in middle and high schools.
"We have got to get disruptive kids out of the classroom so teachers can teach and students can learn," said Kristin J. Amundson, a Fairfax School Board member from Mount Vernon who is running for state delegate. As for the new teachers, she said, "The research is very clear: Smaller classes mean more learning."
On taxes, the Democrats revived their goal of eliminating the state's food tax, and they proposed a new tax break for seniors. Under the proposal, homeowners age 65 and older would have the real estate assessments on their houses frozen, essentially eliminating any increase in taxes as a result of rising home prices.
Finally, the Democrats pledged to again try to pass legislation that would allow patients to sue their health maintenance organizations if they have been denied medically necessary care.
"Patients should have legal recourse," said Del. Gladys B. Keating (Fairfax).