Northern Virginia legislators returned home over the weekend with no new plans or money to alleviate traffic, relieve classroom crowding or control development, ending a General Assembly session that they considered one of the most fruitless and frustrating in recent memory.
A General Assembly majority that remains hostile or indifferent to Northern Virginia's increasingly urban agenda also stymied efforts on such issues as pedestrian safety and regulation of streetlights.
Legislators, lobbyists and local officials said the state's fiscal problems and the need to close a $1.2 billion budget gap colored every discussion of money during the session, while an election-year reticence dissuaded members from proposing bold, potentially controversial initiatives.
Legislators and political observers also largely attributed the lack of progress to the continued fallout from last year's transportation proposals in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. The vote against a sales tax increase in those regions doomed other money-generating proposals, such as raising the cigarette tax, that would have provided funds for services.
"After the referendum, people just said we're not going near anything," said Sen. James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr. (R-Fairfax).
Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, a Democrat from Arlington, said, "The best you can say is that we held our own."
Local government officials in Northern Virginia expressed dismay at lawmakers' failure to find money for transportation, pass pedestrian safety measures or give counties more authority to control their future.
"Whether it's pedestrian safety, funding priorities, land use or transportation, they basically took a powder," said Fairfax County Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence), who chairs the board's legislative committee. "This is the AWOL session."
Unlike last year, when the region's legislators rallied behind transportation and education proposals, senators and delegates did not make a concerted push on a single issue this year. In a sign of the session, attendance at the delegation's weekly meetings tapered after the first week, and they were canceled altogether by the end.
Delegation members said traditional rifts were exacerbated by the tax referendum, which pitted the assembly's young, anti-tax conservatives against its moderate leadership.
"The debate over the referendum highlighted the lack of consensus within the Northern Virginia delegation," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), chairman of the Democratic Caucus in the House.
That rift, said others, killed any incentive legislators from other parts of the state may have had to help Northern Virginia. A transportation proposal backed by Northern Virginia legislators on both sides of the sales tax issue, for example, was killed in a Senate committee when lawmakers from other regions declined to support it.
"Given what happened with the referendum, the message received by other regions is that even Northern Virginia isn't willing to address its major problems," said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax).
Connolly said the legislature's failure to raise new money for transportation in Northern Virginia proves that the proponents of last November's sales tax vote were right to characterize it as the area's last, best hope. Opponents of the referendum had promised that lawmakers could change the state formulas to divert more money for roads to Northern Virginia.
"You have ideologues like [Sen. Ken] Cuccinelli [R-Fairfax] and O'Brien who said you didn't need to vote for the referendum, we'll just go down and change the funding formula," Connolly said. "Those were hollow promises."
Despite the mandate that came with defeating the referendum, opponents were not able to address other concerns they said voters expressed at the polls, including a distrust of government and a desire for growth controls.
The coalition of anti-taxers and slow-growthers that worked to defeat the sales tax proposal to fund transportation programs split over bills that would have required developers to phase new homes with the ability of localities to provide services. Those measures were easily defeated in committees.
Legislators were unable to push through a measure that would have barred the state from tapping the transportation trust fund to balance the budget. The assembly also rejected a proposal to change the way the state allocates money for transportation projects, which would have favored Northern Virginia.
"There's thinking by some, typically older members, that they don't want to upset people around the state," said Cuccinelli, who rode anti-tax sentiment to victory in a special election last summer.
Cuccinelli spent much of his first session climbing what he termed a "steep learning curve." Priority bills, including one that would have shuttered all but one of the state's abortion clinics and another that would have capped property tax assessments, were defeated in committee. The only one of his 16 bills that passed the assembly requires courts to record certain interviews in child custody cases.
Cuccinelli said his biggest contribution was simply getting elected, because that showed legislators across the state that "the trend is in a direction [conservatives] are trying to go."
The region's two other freshmen, O'Brien and Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax), were able to claim victories. O'Brien pushed through a bill to prohibit illegal aliens who don't already have Virginia driver's licenses from obtaining them, while a Hugo proposal that would make it easier to regulate truck traffic on secondary roads passed as part of another bill.
Other gains for the region came in the assembly's budget, which was forwarded to Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) at the session's close. That spending plan reopened Department of Motor Vehicles offices across the state, including several in Northern Virginia.
The assembly also provided $4.5 million for George Mason University's Prince William County campus and $470,000 to open a medical college that is part of Northern Virginia Community College.
Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, defended the assembly's actions and said Northern Virginia did no worse than any other part of the state.
Callahan said Northern Virginia benefits from funding for the Center for Innovative Technology, which he said serves as a catalyst for technology companies. Expanded service to people with mental health problems and an increase in teacher salaries will benefit Northern Virginia as well as the rest of the state, he said.
"It was not a banner year," Callahan said. "But we did remarkably well, under the circumstances."