Virginia voters, skittish about state and local governments taking on more debt, overwhelmingly rejected two proposals yesterday that would have allowed the governments to borrow millions of dollars to build and maintain roads without voter approval.
With 97 percent of the vote counted, 79 percent had voted against giving the state permission to issue transportation pledge bonds and 76 percent had rejected a companion proposal that would have given the same authority to local governments.
Even in traffic-choked Northern Virginia, where supporters had counted on huge margins, seven of every 10 voters turned down the pledge bonds.
In a separate proposal, voters easily approved an amendment to the Constitution that will permit local governments to grant relief to needy senior citizens and disabled people who owe personal property taxes.
An amendment that will allow assets seized from drug dealers to be spent on drug enforcement also was handily approved.
The pledge bond vote was expected, although supporters, led by Gov L. Douglas Wilder (D), initially believed they would prevail in a state that has an estimated $37 billion in transportation needs over the next 20 years.
But in the last few months, as the financial condition of state and local governments has worsened and the national economy has sputtered, many Virginians became nervous about the prospect of allowing their governments to incur more debt.
"Had this been on the ballot two or four years ago, it would have passed handily," said Virginia Transportation Secretary John G. Milliken.
"The national economy, and what people saw happening in Congress over the course of the last month has caused people to be cautious about any spending, and especially commitments over a long period of time," Milliken said.
W. Roy Smith, a former delegate from Petersburg who led the opposition, said, "I think the mood of the people had a great deal to do with it, but they also weren't willing to give the legislature a blank check to create millions of dollars of new debt with an ill-conceived plan to trade away voting rights."
Although the pledge bond question originated during the administration of Gerald L. Baliles, yesterday's defeat also was a setback for Wilder, who told the the General Assembly that the pledge bonds would be one of the few new ways to hasten the financing of road projects.
Unlike general obligation bonds, which require voter approval and are repaid from general tax revenue, pledge bonds are financed from transportation fees such as gasoline taxes and do not need voter approval. Local governments would repay the debt from revenue other than property taxes.
By rejecting the two measures yesterday, Virginia lost a chance to finance as much as $1.2 billion in highway and transit construction projects during the next four years, while local governments could have raised up to $2 billion statewide, including $360 million in Fairfax.
The pledge bond amendments cannot be submitted to voters again until 1994, but many legislators have said they would be unwilling to put it on the ballot again if it lost.
In addition to Wilder, the pledge bond campaign was led by Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr. (D), Attorney General Mary Sue Terry (D) and was backed by most of Northern Virginia's lawmakers.
The supporters, who spent about $185,000, sought to overcome voters' anxiety about debt by appealing to Virginians' frustration with traffic congestion.
Opponents organized much later and counted on free publicity and a late series of radio commercials to capitalize on voters' mood. They spent about $35,000.
Former governor Mills Godwin, former senator Harry F. Byrd Jr. and former delegate Smith led the opposition. Virginia's two U.S. senators, Democrat Charles S. Robb and Republican John W. Warner, also opposed the pledge bonds.
Critics argued the pledge bonds would have forced a departure from the state's traditional "pay-as-you-go" approach to financing its roads.