Gov. James S. Gilmore III is considering several new ideas and some already advanced by lawmakers of both parties as he develops a major spending package to ease traffic problems in Northern Virginia and around the state.
Although no final decisions have been made, administration sources, lawmakers and local officials say there are several leading options that together could make the package total more than $1 billion statewide. Northern Virginia leaders are hoping for at least a billion dollars for the Washington area alone.
The ideas under consideration by the administration include dedicating the state budget surplus to transportation or borrowing against Virginia's portion of the national tobacco settlement or against the recordation tax. Gilmore also might challenge Northern Virginians to raise their own income tax levels and to take over road construction.
A very popular idea, say several Republican lawmakers, is for Gilmore to repay the $200 million that then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D) and the General Assembly borrowed from the state's transportation fund during the recession of the early 1990s. With interest, the amount could run as high as $300 million, and Gilmore could claim credit for repaying what the Democrats had borrowed, Republicans say. The fund pays for the state's transit and road needs.
There is wide agreement from members of both parties that Republicans will pay at the polls if the governor doesn't propose $1 billion for Northern Virginia alone, though that amount could be spread over several years.
"That's, to me, a minimum," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), co-chairman of the top budget writing committee in the House.
"It takes a billion dollars to make a significant dent," said Del. Kenneth R. Plum (Fairfax), chairman of the state Democratic Party. "But in the political process, it takes a willingness to work on the problem."
Pressure has grown on Gilmore over the past several weeks as Northern Virginia business leaders and Democrats have called for significant new investment to unclog the region's roadways. Some of the region's Republicans have joined the call, but many elsewhere in the state are unmoved. Virginia will spend about $2 billion this year on road construction and maintenance statewide.
"There is no transportation crisis in Virginia," said state Sen. William T. Bolling (R-Hanover).
Gilmore's challenge, say lawmakers, is to blunt the issue in Northern Virginia by proposing a package that brings this region $1 billion in new transportation funding--without angering voters elsewhere in the state. The amount still would be far less than the $11 billion in new spending called for by Northern Virginia's top transportation panel, the bipartisan Transportation Coordinating Council.
There is wide agreement from leaders of both parties that finding new transportation funding would be far easier without the financial demands of the car-tax cut, which will cost $1.1 billion a year once phased in fully in 2002.
"The $9 you got back on the car tax doesn't sound so good when you're sitting at the Wilson Bridge for four hours a day," says Del. Barnie K. Day (D-Patrick). "Something's wrong with this picture."
But the car-tax cut is Gilmore's signature issue and is considered off the table by both sides--for now.
Here's a closer looks at the ideas that are on the table for Gilmore's consideration:
The Democrats have made the idea of borrowing against the national tobacco settlement money a centerpiece of their plan to spend $2 billion over the next four years statewide.
That idea is popular with members of both parties. Borrowing against Virginia's share of the settlement could bring a quick infusion of $1 billion, say Democrats. Republicans have warned, however, that the source could dry up if cigarette sales fall or if tobacco companies go under.
A similar idea--and one also central to the Democratic plan--is to borrow against the recordation tax, which could allow borrowing of $710 million immediately. That source--money that goes to the state every time a piece of property changes hands--fluctuates with home sales.
Even if neither the tobacco money nor the recordation tax is used, lawmakers expect Gilmore to propose breaking Virginia's historic taboo against spending on transportation from the general fund--that part of the budget largely supported by income and other broad-based taxes.
Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (R-Fairfax) has proposed borrowing $2.5 billion from the general fund over seven years as part of a bond package that would raise $3.5 billion for transportation needs statewide.
Democrats have proposed directing the state surplus, estimated at $170 million or more, into transportation funding. But Republicans have noted that most of that money is already dedicated by law to other needs.
Some Gilmore advisers are pushing a plan that would call for local governments to impose a separate income tax on their residents to pay for new road construction and mass transit. State legislation would be required to make it easier for local officials to use that revenue for transportation, and voters would have to approve the tax increase in referendums.
That tax idea was criticized yesterday by Northern Virginia politicians and business leaders who accused the governor of trying to shift the expense and the responsibility for transportation projects to the already cash-strapped local governments.
"If the governor wants to raise taxes, he ought to start at the local level and stop passing the buck to the local governments," said Loudoun Supervisor David G. McWatters (R-Broad Run).
Gilmore is also considering a move that would give responsibility for road construction to the local governments, taking it out of the hands of the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Some local governments in Northern Virginia say they could build roads faster, cheaper and better. But lawmakers warn Gilmore that he must propose a substantial amount of state cash for the problem or risk exposing his Republican allies to attacks that they aren't doing enough to solve what many consider a statewide problem.
"I think [the Republicans] are just on pins and needles waiting to hear what he's going to say," said Del. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax).