The head of the Virginia Senate's Finance Committee said Thursday that the state should not spend part of its extra revenue on transportation projects, putting him at odds with the governor, who made the proposal this week.
"I would disagree with using those general fund monies for transportation," said Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Stafford). "You get highways competing with higher education. You get roads competing with K-12. When you have those two entities competing, who's going to win that battle?"
The Senate finance chief, who was instrumental in the legislative drive to increase spending on other services this year, said he would present a transportation package for the 2005 General Assembly that included a mix of initiatives but declined to give details.
Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) said Wednesday that Virginia's strong economy will produce as much as $900 million more in state revenue than had been projected, creating an opportunity for a one-time expenditure on transportation initiatives.
Like Warner and House Republicans, Chichester said that a gas tax increase for transportation projects was unlikely to pass the legislature next year.
Chichester, meeting with other members of the Finance Committee during their annual retreat, said that though the commonwealth's transportation needs are great, there appears to be no appetite for another tax increase. Last year's session increased the sales tax, largely to finance education initiatives.
"Anything we do will be a patchwork," Chichester said. "I certainly don't think that there will be any interest from the members" in the House of Delegates in a gas tax increase.
Chichester's comments on the gas tax -- the state's primary source of road-building money -- signals that lawmakers will seriously consider only modest attempts to improve the state's transportation network when the legislative session begins Jan. 12.
In the last General Assembly session, Chichester proposed the most ambitious of all the transportation financing programs: a $1.6 billion plan over two years that would have been funded in large part by a 3-cent gas tax increase. The Finance Committee withdrew that proposal during protracted negotiations with the House.
Chichester comments suggest that there will be disagreement among lawmakers and the governor on how the extra revenue should be spent. Several other senators also said they envision the surplus being spent on other services, such as health care and education.
A Senate Democrat said other measures to allow more spending on transportation would probably be presented. Sen. Janet D. Howell (Fairfax) said she expects legislation that will propose increasing titling taxes and tolls.
She also said some senators will probably hesitate to use the extra state revenue on transportation.
"We saw a lot of possibilities last year" in transportation initiatives, Howell said. "It's going to have to be a mix . . . but we're going to have to get very serious about this."
Other senators said they will fight to see that a portion of the projected revenue is used for smaller transportation projects.
"It's important that we start with funding the things that we can," said Sen. James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr. (R-Fairfax). "It's a very sobering message, but we need to begin to find solutions."
Some of the state's leading business interests expressed disappointment with the stand taken by the governor and legislative committees on the gas tax. They said Virginia needs to invest more heavily in its road and transit network.
"It's become clear that 2005 is not going to be the year, and we know that," said Steve Haner, director of legislative affairs for the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. "But a gas tax at some point has to be part of the equation. . . . It's going to be a matter of not which of the solutions, but a mix of them all."