Virginia Democrats upped the ante today in the debate over transportation spending, proposing a $2 billion package for road and transit improvements with half the money coming by borrowing against the state's share of the national tobacco settlement.
States nationwide expect to get a total of $206 billion from tobacco companies in settlement of their anti-smoking lawsuits. Although states are reserving portions of the money for health campaigns, politicians throughout the country expect to spend much of it on unrelated projects such as new crosswalks or flood controls.
State Democratic leaders said today they favor earmarking 40 percent of Virginia's share for transportation projects.
The Democrats would borrow against that 40 percent to raise half of the $2 billion they want to add to transportation spending statewide over the next four years. The other half, they say, would come from borrowing against the state recordation tax and from devoting half of future state budget surpluses to transportation.
State Sen. Janet D. Howell (Fairfax), one of several Democratic candidates who promoted the plan today, criticized Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) for not responding quickly to what Democrats dubbed a "transportation crisis."
"The last thing we want is gridlock in our state government," she said. "Gridlock on our roads is bad enough."
Reaction to the tobacco money proposal was mixed, with Democrats generally embracing the idea and Republicans accusing them of grandstanding. Republicans said the money source is unreliable.
But with both parties scrambling to show action on the state's transportation problems in this legislative election year, many politicians were reluctant to dismiss the idea outright.
Gilmore accused the Democrats of playing politics with the transportation issue, but he refrained from criticizing the use of tobacco money for roads and transit.
"From a policy standpoint, all of these matters are under consideration," the governor said.
Gilmore is planning to unveil a transportation plan of his own in the next few weeks.
Democrats do not want to see their proposals swept aside by Gilmore's. And they found the idea of using the tobacco money even more irresistible, they say, after hearing rumors that the governor was entertaining the same notion. In his State of the Commonwealth speech in January, Gilmore proposed that much of the tobacco money go to "critical transportation and education infrastructure needs."
"What'd they do?" Gilmore spokesman Mark A. Miner said of the Democrats' plan. "Take it off the [governor's] Web site?"
The political battle over transportation is centered in the Washington suburbs, where lawmakers and candidates have been overwhelmed by complaints from business leaders, civic groups and ordinary citizens infuriated by ever-worsening traffic snarls. But it is also catching on statewide, even in rural areas where new and improved roads are seen as keys to lifting sluggish local economies.
The result has been a flurry of news conferences by Democrats and some Republicans offering solutions. Before today, the Democrats had offered proposals totaling $1 billion and had urged Gilmore to call a one-day legislative session for a quick infusion of cash to advance several shelved highway projects. The governor and most other Republicans have resisted that plan.
Several Northern Virginia Republicans, led by Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. of Fairfax, have proposed spending $3.5 billion statewide over the next seven years through new borrowing.
Transportation experts say these proposals would barely make a dent in Northern Virginia's traffic problems. The bipartisan Transportation Coordinating Council, the region's top transportation panel, says the area needs $11 billion in new spending just to keep traffic from getting worse.
Half of the anticipated $4 billion from the settlement is slated to aid Virginia's tobacco farmers suffering from an industry slump. Ten percent is earmarked for anti-smoking programs. The remaining 40 percent is available, but the exact dollar amount is unknown. Democrats hope that it will be enough to repay the $1 billion loan they propose to take out against the settlement.
A serious decline in cigarette sales would cut the amount the tobacco companies are required to pay. If one or more tobacco companies declared bankruptcy, the payments also would shrink.
"We haven't gotten this money," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "It's some sort of mirage on the horizon."