Virginia General Assembly members approved Governor Mark Warner's amendment to the Hampton Roads sales tax referendum bill allowing Northern Virginia voters to decide on Nov. 5 whether or not to increase the sales tax by a half cent to fund transportation needs. If the ballot question passes, sales tax, except on food, will rise to five cents in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William Counties, and in the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas, and Manassas Park.
Governor Warner and Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William), who began working on the transportation sales tax idea with colleagues in December 1999, praised "the right to give citizens the choice to decide for themselves the best way to speed up transportation projects for their region." Many business leaders and local government officials called the action "revolutionary" in that the state has never conceded the power to raise money for local projects such as roads and other mass transportation needs to local citizens.
If voters approve the referendum, the increase could bring in about $140 million annually and generate up to $5 billion for regional highway and mass transit projects over the next 20 years. Transit related projects constitute ten of the 24 designated projects. A new regional transportation authority could use the sales tax increase proceeds to fund numerous projects with the projected $2.2 billion in cash and $2.8 billion in bonds.
THIS COULD BRING much needed money for improvements to Route 1 in Fairfax and Prince William counties, the Fairfax County Parkway, Interstate 66, the Dulles rail extension, and new Virginia Railway Express cars.
Campaigns for and against the sales tax transportation referendum are gearing up now and will extend right up to election day as interest groups debate their different views.
Other highlights of the one-day veto session included:
Budget Amendments - Seventy of the governor's 83 amendments to the state's two-year $50 billion budget were approved by legislators. Lawmakers approved the governor's restoration of $2.1 million to a dozen state drug court programs, some of which offer structured drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration. Some of the amendments not making it were $3.1 million for a program for at-risk students and $325,000 for the Jobs for Virginia Graduates program.
Motto - The General Assembly voted to retain the original legislation requiring public schools and allowing government buildings to post the national motto, "In God We Trust." The gubernatorial amendments would have made the motto optional and required the state to pay for the posting. The governor can now sign the bill into law without the amendments or veto it.
Abortion - Virginia lawmakers sustained the governor's veto of a bill that would have reinstated Virginia's ban of certain late-term abortions. The 1998 law was voided when the Supreme Court struck down a similar Nebraska law. Lack of sufficient safeguards to protect the mother's health and that it would be declared unconstitutional were cited.
Open Container - The amendment to broaden the ban prohibiting open containers of alcohol in passenger areas of motor vehicles was rejected.
Bonus - State workers are to receive their bonus at the end of August instead of the end of December.
Trash Fee - Governor Warner proposed a trash dumping fee of $5-per-ton which was supported by Speaker of the House of Delegates S. Vance Wilkins, Jr. (R-Amherst County). The measure expected to generate about $76 million annually for conservation efforts was defeated by lawmakers. Virginia is second only to Pennsylvania in accepting trash from out of state. The Senate reconsidered the measure on a voice vote late and referred it to the Senate Agriculture Committee for consideration in the 2003 General Assembly.
The one-day veto session ended with less controversy than might have been anticipated after the General Assembly Session was abruptly gaveled to adjournment in the House before the members could vote on a Northern Virginia Transportation Referendum compromise in March.
Now, with the legislation passed and the ballot question to be decided by the people on Nov. 5, the business community, anti-tax and slow-growth advocate groups, along with environmentalists will bring their debates to the airways and through the mail. Some local officials have expressed concern that the sales tax vote is a last-gasp chance to get money for transportation after years of falling behind. And if it fails, lawmakers will be unlikely to send any new money to the region for years.
Whatever happens, it's up to the voters to decide.