Gov. James S. Gilmore III's plan to spend $2.5 billion on transportation in the next six years has run into heavy attack from members of both parties and several regions of the state, rendering its fate uncertain as lawmakers begin work on what many call their top priority.
The Gilmore proposal, which last fall helped propel Republicans to their first General Assembly majority, is now rapped as too small or too large, too generous to Northern Virginia or not generous enough. Some lawmakers cringe at the debt. Some don't want to spend tobacco settlement money on roads. Some dismiss the whole package as piecemeal, shortsighted and simply insufficient.
"It's turned into a barroom fight," said Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William), a leading advocate of the Republican governor's package.
Administration officials play down much of the criticism as early session jockeying and suggest that most, if not all, of Gilmore's plan will pass. It met with wide applause in August, when the governor said his proposal could help extend subway service to Tysons Corner, widen Interstate 66 outside the Capital Beltway and create rapid bus service to Dulles International Airport without raising taxes.
"It's early in the game, and there are many innings to go," said Gilmore spokesman Mark Miner.
Alternatives to Gilmore's proposal abounded tonight as the Northern Virginia delegation met for the second time this week in hopes of unifying behind a transportation plan.
They agreed to several elements of Gilmore's proposal but remained wary of using part of the state's share of the national tobacco settlement for an $814 million cash infusion for transportation. Others pushed for a package larger than Gilmore's and one with a more permanent funding source.
Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) proposed raising more than $800 million a year in large part by dedicating the state's corporate income tax and one-quarter of a percent of the state's personal income tax to transportation, according to lawmakers who attended the closed meeting. Much of his plan would not begin until 2002 but would direct nearly $4 billion over the next six years to transportation, far more than Gilmore's plan.
Northern Virginia lawmakers, including some Republicans, said they would consider the proposal, but they stopped short of embracing it tonight.
"The problem with that is it puts such a huge hole in the budget," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. But he added that Saslaw's idea "has merit."
Other lawmakers said they found areas of agreement and little partisan rancor as they worked toward a delegation position on transportation. "The Northern Virginia delegation is coming together," said Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (R-Fairfax). "We will be unified as a delegation. . . . We're going to stick by it and make it happen."
Gilmore proposed his plan after two months of pounding by Northern Virginia Democrats who dubbed him "Governor Gridlock" because of his reluctance to spend more money on the state's roads and transit systems. Republicans urged him to offer a transportation proposal to keep the Democrats from scoring points on this quintessentially suburban issue and thwarting the GOP drive for a legislative majority.
Gilmore's package ties together several funding sources. The tobacco settlement would provide $814 million. Borrowing against expected federal funding would provide $590 million. And the general fund--which is supported by income and other taxes but has historically been considered off limits for bankrolling transportation--is to provide $900 million. A change in the collection of the gas tax would provide the remaining $210 million.
The governor's plan fulfilled its political function in blunting Democratic attacks. But five months later, Gilmore's plan seemingly has more detractors than supporters.
Hints at the depths of the plan's problems came today when Callahan filed the bill that would allow the use of tobacco settlement money to pay for transportation. Only six other lawmakers signed on as co-patrons.
"Everybody embraced it then [in August]. Now some of them won't sign it," Callahan said.
"The problem," said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), "is each specific component of his package is in trouble for different reasons, and with different groups."
Several lawmakers in both Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads favor giving local governments more power to tax their citizens if they approve the plan and specific projects in a referendum. Northern Virginia business groups have embraced the idea, but Gilmore is reluctant to allow any tax increases, administration officials said.
Lawmakers from Southside and Southwest Virginia are also eager for more transportation money, but many contend Gilmore's plan is rigged to help Northern Virginia the most.
Del. Barnie K. Day (D-Patrick) said that he favors much of Gilmore's plan but that few do from his part of the state, along the North Carolina border. "That plan is dead as a mackerel unless something changes."
Even the most optimistic supporters of Gilmore's plan say the haggling and the dealmaking have just begun.
"I would think that he'll get most of it," said Del. Harry J. Parrish (R-Manassas), co-chairman of the House Finance Committee. "You've got a lot of gripes about most legislation right now."
Staff writer Justin Blum contributed to this report.