RICHMOND, Feb. 22 -- Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) signaled Thursday that he is unhappy with the direction of transportation funding negotiations, sending a strong warning to Republican lawmakers who are struggling to find a compromise in the last days of the General Assembly session.
The governor's warning was echoed by Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), who said lawmakers should defeat the measure unless major changes are made.
Sources in the legislature said negotiators have almost reached an agreement on a plan that would, among other things, gradually take money from the state's general fund to repay as much as $2.5 billion that would be borrowed for roads, bridges, tunnels and transit. People familiar with the talks, who declined to be identified because negotiations were ongoing, said the plan could be unveiled as early as Friday morning. Lawmakers will adjourn Saturday.
But the governor, who has until now declined to comment on the negotiations, appeared to side with Democrats and a handful of Senate Republicans. That coalition aims to block a transportation plan compromise when it comes to a final vote because, it says, the plan threatens the general fund, which pays for health care, police, education and other programs and services.
"Borrowing with money out of school funds is hard to swallow for reasonable folks," Kaine said, noting that he had not seen a final proposal. "But we'll see. Maybe it will get better."
Connolly said he objects to provisions that would require his board to approve local tax increases and to accept responsibility for maintaining local roads. "If those two things are not addressed, the bill is not acceptable," he said. "It's too high a price to get a bill."
The comments by Kaine and Connolly could undermine approval of the transportation plan, the biggest issue facing lawmakers in a year in which all of them are up for reelection. Kaine made transportation the heart of his 2005 campaign and proposed a $1 billion tax increase last year that was defeated, resulting in a stalemate that nearly caused a government shutdown.
This year, a fragile compromise among House and Senate Republicans was carefully designed in the hopes of getting at least a bare majority in each of the legislative chambers to find a solution.
Republican lawmakers are trying to craft a bill that is acceptable to the more conservative House of Delegates and the more moderate Senate. But several said they have been counting on Kaine and elected leaders in local communities to convince Democrats in both chambers that the compromise, although not perfect, is worth supporting.
In addition to the bonds, the proposal would raise money from stiffer fines on bad drivers and would include a $10 increase in auto registration fees and myriad potential tax and fee increases in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), one of the chief negotiators, said rejection of the compromise by the Senate would end transportation funding efforts for the year and prompt House leaders to adjourn permanently.
"We would be gone," he said. "Three days before the end of the session, and it appears that [Kaine] is attempting to derail the train of progress on transportation."
Del. C.L. "Clay" Athey Jr. (R-Warren) said the plan forces local governments to approve regional taxes to guarantee that the money raised stays in the region. He said local officials such as Connolly have long requested the ability to raise money.
"Gerry Connolly is having a hard time, obviously, because it's time to put up or shut up," Athey said. He said that Connolly is misguided about the control of roads. "They are voluntary. He doesn't know what he's talking about."
Kaine said in a radio interview Thursday that "we need to get a solution. I don't want them to walk out without a deal a second year in a row."
Aides to Kaine said that efforts to use general funds for transportation have led the governor to view the current proposal's completion by negotiators to be a stealth attempt to shrink the government's core services.
Kaine also thinks the money that would be raised is too little to make a dent in the problem, aides said, and believes that requiring local governments in Northern Virginia to vote on new taxes for transportation is an abdication of responsibility by the General Assembly.
In the radio interview, Kaine accused negotiators of "keeping a bill secret" until the last moment and urged them to make their final plan public with enough time for a serious debate of its merits.
"Right now, the effort is to just kind of put it out on the floor at the last minute and get a vote," Kaine said. "When you do that . . . you might have some problems."
Kaine met privately with Senate Democrats late Wednesday at the Executive Mansion and with members of the House and Senate leadership for breakfast Thursday morning.
Earlier Thursday, some Republicans accused the governor of failing to get involved until the last minute. A group of GOP lawmakers who call themselves the "sensitivity caucus," jokingly gave the governor a Southern white rocking chair Thursday, calling it the "Porch Sitter" award.
Ed Gillespie, the chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, was more serious, questioning Kaine's role in helping to reach a compromise on transportation. "He is Governor Kaine, not citizen Kaine. He could be in the mix here," Gillespie said.
Kaine spokesman Kevin Hall responded sarcastically to Gillespie's comments: "Who is Mr. Gillespie again? "