Virginia Democrats today proposed repaying the money borrowed earlier this decade from the state's road-building program as they continued pressuring Gov. James S. Gilmore III on an issue they consider vital to the legislative campaign.
August has been filled with dueling transportation news conferences in which Republicans and Democrats seek an edge in developing transportation solutions. Control of both houses of the General Assembly will be decided in November, when all legislative seats are on the ballot.
Gilmore (R) ousted his top roads official in a State Capitol news conference Thursday. Democrats followed today with a news conference to criticize Gilmore's action as scapegoating and offered another modification to their transportation package.
Today's proposal doesn't increase the size of the Democratic package of about $2 billion, party officials said. But they hope it inoculates Democrats from what they believe is an identical proposal coming from Gilmore.
The administration is considering several ideas, including borrowing against the state's share of the national tobacco settlement. But lawmakers of both parties expect Gilmore to make repaying the state transportation trust fund a centerpiece of his package.
The $200 million borrowed from the fund was used by then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat, to balance the budget during a recession. With interest, it would cost about $300 million to pay back the fund. Gilmore would be able to take credit for keeping a promise Democrats made to repay the fund.
State Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) today praised Wilder for balancing the state's budget without raising taxes even as she said it was time to pay off the debt.
"I think it was a commitment that the legislature made at that time," Howell said. "We ought to live up to our commitments."
She and other Democrats also sharply criticized Gilmore for his decision to oust David R. Gehr, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation, in connection with two environmental incidents in the past two years. Chip Nottingham, an assistant secretary of transportation, will be acting commissioner until a permanent replacement is found.
Democrats today praised Gehr, a former district engineer in Northern Virginia, for his skill and professionalism as the head of VDOT since 1994. They said the governor was simply eager to distract voters from his inability to speed up the state's road-building program.
Gilmore spokeswoman Lila Young dismissed the Democratic proposal and today's attack as grandstanding.
"The Democrats are trying to make a virtue out of putting money back in that they took in the first place," she said.
In the past two days, several Northern Virginia Republicans also have vouched for Gehr's ability and agreed that his removal was largely political.
"I thought a great deal of David Gehr," said Del. Harry J. Parrish (R-Manassas). "Unfortunately transportation problems are severe not only in Northern Virginia but elsewhere in the commonwealth. It's one of those things where the buck stops here."
Parrish and others suggested the fault for VDOT's recent troubles may rest with staffing cuts ordered by former Gov. George Allen, a Republican, who downsized VDOT as part of his program of shrinking government.
Allen's $40 million buyout was intended to trim what the governor said was a bloated bureaucracy. Instead, critics say, the buyout prompted a wholesale exodus of experienced employees.
"The Virginia Department of Transportation has had problems since it was eviscerated during the Allen administration," said Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Katherine K. Hanley (D). "Dave Gehr couldn't make gold out of straw."
Allen administration officials said the buyout saved Virginia $53 million. Legislative analysts later questioned the long-term savings. Meanwhile, VDOT officials came under fire for a series of mishaps and management snafus.
Jay Timmons, Allen's former chief of staff, dismissed the attacks. "I think it's typical political posturing from the Democrats," he said.