WITH THE clock ticking toward the Virginia General Assembly's scheduled adjournment today, a conclave of lawmakers heavily stacked with anti-tax ideologues yesterday produced a transportation funding package that it touts as a grand "compromise." In fact it is a relatively insipid response to the state's most urgent crisis, one that would apply a Band-Aid to a problem that years of neglect have turned into a sucking wound. The legislature should do better.
Leave aside for a moment the foolish game of chicken that the Republicans who control the legislature have played by unveiling a 100-page bill (copies of which were unavailable) 24 hours before the scheduled finale of the legislative session. The real problem with the proposal is that it attempts to solve a massive, long-term shortfall in funding for road construction, transit improvements and maintenance without any new, broad-based tax. Instead it attempts to make do with bits of this and scraps of that -- a $10 hike in vehicle registration fees; higher fines for bad drivers; half of future budget surpluses that may or may not materialize. The result is what you'd expect: too little and too late.
The driving force behind the blueprint, House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), knows full well that his plan's deficiencies are serious, because he has tried (albeit halfheartedly) to minimize them. Mr. Howell trumpets the fact that this new bill would rely somewhat less on raiding general fund revenue for transportation needs than the last one he put forward -- $184 million rather than $250 million annually. But the essential problem remains: The GOP-backed package expands the overall pie of revenue very little while pitting transportation funding against every other essential function of state government -- public schools, higher education, health care, public safety and human services.
That is a departure from the well-established practice in Virginia of devoting a separate pool of money to roads, rails and bridges, which are long-term projects requiring sustained and predictable funding. It leaves already paltry transportation funding vulnerable to diversions and delays during inevitable economic downturns. Yesterday Republicans made much of the fact that the diversion of dollars from the general fund to transportation would represent a small fraction of the overall state budget. But the budgetary bloodletting in Richmond that followed the bursting of the high-tech bubble is a good indication of what will happen in recessions to come.
What's more, the Republican plan -- and that's precisely what it is; just two of the 12 conferees who crafted this bill were Democrats -- provides too little money. Just $200 million in new funding would go toward road maintenance statewide; that is is about half of what's needed. The $400 million in fresh revenue that Northern Virginia could receive (from new taxes and fees the region would theoretically levy on itself) is not a pittance, but is inadequate when stacked against the $700 million that transportation planners have said is critical just to keep traffic from getting worse in Fairfax, Prince William, Loudoun and the region's other jurisdictions.
In pillorying the bill yesterday, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) suggested he would veto it if it makes it through both houses of the legislature and would call lawmakers back in a special session in an attempt to force a better package. It's a high-stakes gamble by the governor; he could easily end up with nothing while deepening the reserves of ill will that have built up between him and the Republicans. But with so much room for improvement to the single most important piece of legislation facing him, the governor is right to stand his ground.