Northern Virginia's lawmakers returned to Richmond this week vowing to keep a united front as they seek gains on transportation and education, the two issues that dominated last fall's elections.
The region controls one-quarter of the seats in the General Assembly and many of the top committee chairmanships. Adding to its power has been a history of cohesiveness despite being split nearly evenly between Republicans and Democrats. There is rarely dissent about the region's top needs, and Northern Virginia lawmakers have worked together without regard to party even on the selection of judges--a highly politicized struggle for other regional delegations.
"We're in this boat together," said Del. Joe T. May (R-Loudoun).
With the 60-day session underway this week, the delegation's focus is on winning as much road and transit money for the region as possible while also working to bolster public school funding.
School construction, new computers and teacher raises are among the education priorities for many local lawmakers. Winning new growth-control measures is popular among lawmakers from fast-growing Loudoun County but has mixed support among the rest of the delegation. Some lawmakers also are proposing new measures to keep guns out of schools.
The delegation has a slightly different look this year. Veteran state Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax) has retired and been replaced by Sen. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D), a former delegate. Her House seat has been filled by Del. Kristen J. Amundson (D).
Also joining the House is Del. Thomas M. Bolvin (R-Fairfax), who beat veteran Democratic delegate Gladys B. Keating. State Sen. Leslie L. Byrne (D-Fairfax) returns to the legislature after beating former Republican senator Jane H. Woods.
Overall, Northern Virginia has seven Democrats and three Republicans in the state Senate. In the House, the area has 14 Republicans and 10 Democrats.
Action on transportation will center on the six-year, $2.5 billion package proposed by Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) during the height of the legislative campaign season in August. The size, funding and regional distribution of the transportation package all face legislative debate.
At a time when snarled traffic in the Washington area is among the worst in the nation, several of the region's lawmakers have said they would press for a bigger package.
The Northern Virginia Transportation Coordinating Council says the region alone must see $14 billion in new transportation spending by 2020 just to keep traffic from getting worse.
Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria) says that isn't enough to relieve congestion, a problem he and others fear will drive thriving high-technology businesses elsewhere.
"You're choking off the golden goose," he said. "The [budget] surplus is being generated by the Northern Virginia economy. To sustain that economy, you have to have an adequate transportation system."
Even some Republicans say the governor's transportation proposal would not suffice. "It doesn't go nearly far enough, in my opinion," said Del. Harry J. Parrish (R-Prince William).
Lawmakers from across the state complain that Gilmore's transportation package relies too heavily on borrowing, long a taboo in Virginia, which historically has favored paying for roads with current revenue.
The reliance of Gilmore's package on money from the national tobacco settlement also troubles some lawmakers, who argue that more of that windfall should be used to fight smoking and related health problems.
Last year, the General Assembly and Gilmore agreed to a deal in which half of the $4 billion expected from the settlement over the next 25 years would go to aid tobacco farmers and their communities and 10 percent would go to fight youth smoking. Gilmore and leaders of both parties want to use the rest for transportation but have encountered resistance from doctors, drug companies and some lawmakers.
Others are searching for new sources of money for transportation, such as an increase in the gas tax, but Gilmore is adamantly opposed to new taxes.
"There's no question we ought to find an additional source of money for roads," said Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax). "My constituents said they would not mind an additional gas tax."
With all the fighting expected on transportation, Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (R-Fairfax) warns that the Northern Virginia delegation should focus on getting Gilmore's package through the legislature intact. If it dies, a smaller transportation package might result, he said.
"We've got to make sure we've got the governor's package in place," Rust said.
On educational issues, lawmakers say they will push to make sure that state lottery profits continue to be sent to local school districts. Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun) said those funds are desperately needed in his rapidly growing county, where officials say they need to build 22 schools in six years.
Several local lawmakers have pledged to improve the Standards of Learning tests that measure student and school achievement. There also is a push among some lawmakers to raise teacher salaries to help attract and retain top educators.
"If we really want quality education," Byrne said, "it begins with having good, qualified teachers."
Controlling suburban sprawl is on the agenda of several lawmakers from the region, especially Loudoun. One idea with broad bipartisan support would use state money to buy development rights to land, protecting forests and natural areas from new building.
But there is less support for the growth-control tools sought by Loudoun officials, who are asking for the power to cut off development in areas with crowded schools and roads and the power to charge fees on every new house that's built.
Several lawmakers say local governments have enough tools to control growth.
"I just have little sympathy with local governments that don't have the guts to use the powers they already have," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax).