Long, hot summer or not, the election season in Virginia now goes into its final heat for the run to November. Every seat in the state legislature is up for grabs and critical to the quests of the political parties for control of the two houses. Democrats head for the campaign trails with a one-vote advantage in the House of Delegates. Republicans have a two-vote lead in the Senate and will continue to control all three statewide executive offices -- governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
These stakes ought to arouse all kinds of voters. State capitals, after all, are where more and more decisions directly affecting daily lives are being made. Yet no one in Virginia has spotted any mass voter awakening so far this year. The issues likely to dominate the campaign do stir voter passions; but the parties have yet to refine and market their positions to capture any intense voter attention.
Democrats have just taken the first formal turn at it, rolling out a set of issues that they believe need serious attention in Richmond next year. Their list of initiatives ought to resonate well across the state; it starts with a strong focus on major financial commitments to transportation improvements. Democratic incumbents and hopefuls alike are proposing that half of all state budget surpluses be invested in transportation projects and programs. They would add to this about $71 million in annual revenue from the real estate deeds tax; this money could be leveraged to issue bonds for transit improvements.
Del. Linda "Toddy" Puller of Fairfax County, who is running for the state Senate and who was a leader in coalescing north-south support in Richmond this year for important road projects, describes the party's proposals not as a huge spending program but as an essential investment in the very prosperity that is producing the surpluses. "We cannot sustain prosperity if workers cannot get to their jobs and if deliveries cannot get to businesses." Sen. Janet Howell agrees that "nothing threatens our economic well-being more than traffic congestion. . . . Gov. Gilmore had $1 billion to spend, and he didn't spend one nickel on transportation."
Del. Kenneth Plum, chairman of the state Democratic Party, says the opportunity to invest surpluses extends as well to education, while still allowing for some tax relief for those who need it most. Included in the platform, for example, is a proposed new tax break for homeowners age 65 or older. Their real estate assessments would be frozen, thus eliminating any tax increases pegged to rising home prices. The Democrats also are continuing their push for an accelerated elimination of the state's food tax.
Republican leaders counter that the Democrats' proposals would break the bank without returning significant surplus money to taxpayers. They have yet to present their version of a statewide platform, which may take some intraparty negotiating to complete.
But many GOP incumbents from Northern Virginia have recognized the need for major investments in transportation and have expressed sharp differences with Gilmore on this issue. Sen. Warren Barry and Dels. James Dillard, John Rollison and John Rust have been especially strong voices for more road relief. Sen. Jane Woods also urges a greater financial commitment, though she has signed a nationally circulated pledge to oppose any effort raising a tax ("unnecessarily," she inserted) without decreasing another tax to compensate for it. As for traffic congestion, she says, "We have people truly growing old on the roads, spending years of their lives on the roads. They are missing their kids growing up."
Business leaders in Northern Virginia and other heavily populated parts of the state are equally concerned. They can point to economic damage caused by congestion. Yet Gilmore remains fiercely determined that nothing even resembling a tax increase -- for any purpose -- be enacted on his watch. To buy time, he has a newly appointed commission on transportation funding looking into the problems.
While partisan control of the Virginia legislature is the grand prize this November, the elections that will award the power are local. If the governor and top state Republican Party leaders don't see the connection between transportation financing and the strength of Virginia's economy, GOP candidates in fast-growing regions may well find themselves adrift, left to make their own individual ways to Richmond.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.