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Cruise control: Virginia needs reliable funds for the roads ahead

March 19, 2006 12:50 am

YOU KNOW THINGS aren't going well in Richmond when not even the Republicans are talking to one another. The quarrelling between the House and Senate--both chambers led by the GOP--has actually upstaged the usual Republican-Democrat partisanship.

I like to perform an annual General Assembly assessment, and the timing should have been perfect. The session was supposed to end on Saturday, March 11, as the state Constitution mandates, but with the budget unresolved, it didn't.

So, unfortunately, I'm all set to do my postmortem, but the patient has yet to expire. He is currently in a state of suspended animation, and a week from now will be back at work. Remarkable.

Oh, what the heck--let's dig in anyway.

The business left unfinished by the General Assembly is the state budget--its single most important duty. Without the so-called blueprint for spending, nothing happens. Having ended its session without a budget for three of the past five years, the Assembly is making this a bad habit.

To the average voter, whose livelihood might hinge on getting work done on time, it is simply ridiculous.

If there's no budget by July 1, and certain agencies begin to shut down, voters will have good reason to be angry.

Previously, the problem has been dealing with a budget shortfall--finding ways to make ends meet in economically challenged times. This year the issue is transportation--and whether it's fair to ask Virginians to pony up $1 billion a year to fix the state's ailing infrastructure. Clearly that's a tough sell just two years after legislating a $1.4 billion tax increase, and with the state sitting on what's described as a $2 billion surplus.

Of course no one expects Virginia's lawmakers to deal with a $72 billion spending plan in willy-nilly fashion. Taxpayers demand accountability. They want wasteful spending eliminated, but they also want services.

With the Republican-heavy Assembly having shot down several of freshman Gov. Kaine's initiatives, it's amazing that that the tax increase legislation has lived this long.

At the heart of this impasse are two Fredericksburg-area Republicans who consider themselves friends but in recent years have seen a rift develop between their tax-levying philosophies.

Sen. John Chichester, formerly of Stafford and now of Northumberland, holds the Senate's purse strings by virtue of his Senate Finance Committee chairmanship. Sen. Chichester has led the Senate into a bipartisan willingness to understand the value of new state revenues. The vote two years ago merely filled the gap, finally, created by car tax revenues lost under Gov. Jim Gilmore's administration. Replacing those funds was inevitable.

Leading the House is Speaker Bill Howell of Stafford County, who takes very seriously his leadership of the "people's chamber" and is as certain as he can be that the people don't want to pay more taxes. In light of the voting defections that led to the tax increase two years ago, he is now using tactics to keep House Republicans in line that Tony Soprano would appreciate.

Chichester and Howell are currently having a failure to communicate, as Strother Martin put it in "Cool Hand Luke." But there is a lot more at stake in Virginia's budget than there is between a chain-gang boss and an insolent convict--the lives of 7 million Virginians, for example.

Like the nation's "blue states" and "red states," Virginia has blue counties and red counties. If you recall that electoral map after the 2004 presidential election, Sen. John Kerry managed 48 percent of the popular vote, but you needed a magnifying glass to see the blue spots on the map. But those blue spots were generally cities--areas of high-density population--that carry a lot of weight at the polls.

In Virginia, this budget debate is being driven, so to speak, by Northern Virginia and Tidewater, densely populated locales that are fed up with traffic congestion, and the toll it takes on the environment and the general quality of life.

Those who live across the vast majority of the state's land mass couldn't care less about traffic congestion, aside from Saturday nights at the drive-in.

But since these congested areas are where most of the state's revenues are generated, they are the squeaky wheel.

No one is pro-taxation any more than anyone is pro-abortion. Both should be viewed as a last resort, but as an available option under difficult circumstances.

Gov. Tim Kaine's top priority in calling for this tax increase is to provide funds dedicated to the specific purpose of transportation. Virginia has fallen into the routine of letting the cyclical nature of the economy dictate its spending habits. Funding for such things as transportation, education, the environment, and state employee pay are governed by whether there is money available.

Of course not all of these things should be treated as entitlements. But as roads and bridges crumble under bumper-to-bumper traffic, taxpayers want, and should expect to pay for, guaranteed improvements. It is a safety issue, as well.

The House transportation plan would be more like business as usual. It would generate $500 million a year for four years and relies more on rounding up funds from other key sources rather than increasing Virginians' tax bite. Such funds are easier to find when economic times are good.

It is impossible for the state to meet its responsibilities from year to year if its agencies can't count on the money being there. No bureaucracy was built to turn on a dime. No wonder transportation officials are accused of being wasteful when so much money is spent slowing down and accelerating the behemoth agency.

A year ago, lawmakers--led by Speaker Howell--created a fund dedicated to the Chesapeake Bay recovery program. They guaranteed at least $50 million a year for the next 10 years. Although a much greater outlay is needed, the move was hailed for the consistent funding it provides.

Virginia is among the richest states in the nation. It should be able to do what it needs to do.

Richard Amrhine is a writer and editor for The Free Lance-Star.

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