RICHMOND -- Many of the bills that Northern Virginia localities were supporting have failed to make it past the halfway point in the General Assembly's 2003 session.
Their efforts to gain authority to tax a range of goods -- including cigarettes, gasoline and movie tickets -- have been nixed. A proposal to ban English ivy has also been defeated. Don't even think about measures to control the region's growth.
One of the few bills showing progress is an effort to make cars yield to pedestrians.
"On the whole, the issues that localities are bringing forward are not succeeding," said state Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington), sponsor of many tax proposals and the English ivy bill.
The General Assembly that reached its halfway point Tuesday has been dominated by the need to close a $1.2 billion shortfall in Virginia's two-year, $50 billion budget. Few bills that would add to government expenses have even received a hearing, much less passed the House or state Senate.
One exception is the question of restoring services provided by the Department of Motor Vehicles. In October, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) closed 12 DMV centers, including four in Northern Virginia, and cut Wednesday service statewide. He has since said he wants to reopen the 12 centers, whereas Republican lawmakers developed a plan that would also restore Wednesday hours.
Legislators said the DMV fight, the tax debates and most other decisions on bills are colored by the fact that all 140 seats in the General Assembly will be up for election Nov. 4.
Northern Virginia sought greater taxing authority this year to pay for services, including schools and health care.
Several Northern Virginia legislators launched proposals to give counties the same taxing powers as cities and towns. That would allow counties to raise more revenue through taxes on cigarettes and restaurant meals. Supporters said that would diversify the tax bases of localities and allow them to lower real estate tax rates.
Legislators also tried to raise the regional gas tax by 2 cents, and Alexandria sought to win legislative approval for a tax on movie tickets.
But the bills have been blocked in an Assembly known for its abhorrence of taxes, particularly in an election year that follows defeat of two regional sales tax proposals last November.
"Voters said no very resoundingly in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia to increasing taxes," said Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), who has voted against all tax-raising measures. Marshall said the solution to money problems is that "we have to be more prudent with our expenditures."
Del. Robert D. Hull (D-Fairfax), who sponsored a bill to give counties greater taxing authority, said legislators might have more luck next year.
"I think the problem is that this is an election year, and a lot of people are leery . . . of voting for anything that has the word tax in it," Hull said.
Arlington County was also rebuffed in its efforts to have English ivy classified as a noxious weed. Whipple and some county employees told legislators about the havoc the plant is wreaking on trees and plants, but lawmakers were unwilling to outlaw it.
Opponents argued that English ivy is controllable if dealt with properly and that regulating the sale of it would be a costly, burdensome proposition.
"English ivy is just a big concern in Arlington County," Whipple said. "Other people clearly don't share that concern."
Localities have had more success with a bill that would require drivers to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks where the speed limit is 35 mph or less. That measure was approved by the Senate, though similar bills were defeated in the House.
Bills that win approval in one chamber must also be passed by the other before they can go to Warner for his signature. Since Tuesday, each chamber has been considering bills that the other approved during the first half of the session, which ends Feb. 22.
A primary issue in the outer counties of Loudoun and Prince William heading into the session was growth controls. Local leaders have been pushing for additional powers for several years and had hoped this year could bring a breakthrough after the sales tax vote. Environmentalists and other slow-growth activists interpreted that vote as a call to temper development.
But state lawmakers killed some proposals that would have allowed localities to tie development to their ability to provide community services and other measures that would have charged builders fees to support development of those services.