A bipartisan quartet of legislators today asked Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) to call a special one-day session of the General Assembly this month to appropriate surplus funds for stalled transportation projects, but the governor quickly shot down the idea.
The lawmakers, three of whom represent traffic-clogged Northern Virginia districts, said that the state's healthy economy has produced an unanticipated surplus of $200 million that could allow the Virginia Department of Transportation to resume work on about 90 projects that are on hold because of a lack of money.
But Gilmore said the proposal "has more to do with political posturing than addressing Virginia's transportation needs in a serious way." A special session "would not be limited [to the transportation issue] in any way and would open the door to those who want to raise taxes," the governor said.
Gilmore added that "attempting to appropriate surplus funds at this time would be fiscally irresponsible, because we do not know what the surplus is going to be." Instead, he said, his commission on transportation policy expects to make recommendations in the near future on how to attack the problem.
For the legislature to meet over the governor's opposition, two-thirds of the members in each chamber would have to sign a petition. Such an action seemed unlikely, however, as initial reaction to the idea broke down along party lines, with Democrats favoring the session, and most Republicans agreeing with the governor.
The four proponents, Sens. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) and Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax) and Dels. Harry J. Parrish (R-Prince William) and C. Richard Cranwell (D-Roanoke), said at a news conference at the Capitol that the governor could draft a procedural resolution that would limit such a session to a single topic. They suggested Aug. 23 as the date.
"We are sure that you are aware that the transportation board has delayed some 20 percent of current transportation projects this year," they said in a letter to Gilmore. "We believe that the [fiscal year] 1999 surplus should be used immediately to get the delayed projects back on track. We feel that a one-day session appropriating the . . . surplus to the Transportation Trust Fund will accomplish that objective."
Barry said the solution "needs to be bipartisan, to keep a check on grandstanding" in a year in which all 140 seats in the assembly are up for grabs.
"We're not getting after the governor," Parrish emphasized. "He inherited the problem, which has taken place over many years, but the question must be addressed now. Why waste six months when VDOT could be moving forward?"
Saslaw said that if lawmakers wait until they return to Richmond in January for the 2000 regular session, "we will be faced with a variety of competing interests" for the surplus.
The Republican state chairman, Sen. J. Randy Forbes (Chesapeake), called the plan "election year hyperbole, and no way to solve our transportation problems."
Democrats are to blame for gridlock, Forbes explained, because "they raided the transportation trust fund" by borrowing $200 million during an downturn in the economy in the early '90s to balance the budget.
Sen. Jane H. Woods (R-Fairfax) estimated that Northern Virginia would get only $15 million of the surplus, not enough to make a dent in the region's transportation problems. Woods said the law requires that before a surplus can be distributed, percentages must be subtracted for the state's rainy day fund and for a clean-water fund.
"I can't see coming back for what could have been a short-term fix in the regulation session, but nobody had the desire to fix it," added Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (R-Fairfax).
But Del. Robert D. Hull (D-Falls Church) said "it doesn't make sense" to delay, adding, "We've got the money, and we have projects galore" that need to be built. He said VDOT told members of the House Finance Committee last month that a number of projects had been removed from the six-year plan.
The assembly last devoted a special session exclusively to transportation in 1986, when, at the urging of then-Gov. Gerald L. Baliles (D), lawmakers increased the sales tax and dedicated the extra income to highway and mass-transit projects.