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Votes

Arlington Legislators Look For Small Successes

Some bills passs, but budget, referenda prove sticking points.

With less than one week left in the General Assembly session, "the two major issues are still up in the air," Del. Robert Brink (D-48) said.

The state’s budget for the next year has still not been set, and the question of a referendum on using local taxes to fund transportation and education is still unanswered, he said.

Arlington’s delegation has met with mixed success this Assembly session. Some bills have been unexpected victories, others have been left in committee until the end of the year. But looming over it all, members said, has been the shortfall in the state budget.

"This was certainly a year when, if you had to get additional funding form the state, it made it that much harder" to pass a bill, State Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-31) said.

That meant some much needed programs lost support in the Assembly, based solely on financial concerns.

<b>No State Funds</b>

<bt>But bills requiring money weren’t automatically doomed, as long as they didn’t require state money. Patricia Ticer (D), state senator from the 30th district covering south Arlington, said she and Whipple had a surprising success with a bill giving more money to local government to retain employees.

The bill, which began in the House under Brink’s sponsorship, would let Arlington use any funds except state money to help county employees buy homes locally. The plan could mean more Arlington teachers, staff, police officers and firefighters would have a chance to buy often-pricey homes in Arlington.

Police Chief Edward Flynn "came down and testified, and I really give him the credit" for the bill’s passage, Ticer said. "It had died twice before, and this time it passed by one vote in committee. We were pleasantly surprised when it came to the Senate floor."

Similarly, bills covering Arlington’s hotel tax also met success in the Assembly. Ticer, Whipple and Brink found sympathetic ears for the bills, which extend the county’s hotel occupancy tax, and propose an increase to build a convention center.

"The purpose is to promote tourism," Brink said. "It’s very important in the post-Sept. 11 economy. The region took a severe hit."

<b>Continued in Committee</b>

<bt>Other local legislation has passed into a kind of legislative half-life, listed as continued to 2003 under committee consideration.

Included in that batch of bills are proposals to change state funding of local schools, introduced by Del. Karen Darner (D-49); bills from Del. James Almand (D-47) that would prevent the state from executing mentally retarded defendants, and expanding hate crimes coverage; and a series of bills introduced by Brink, expanding health insurance coverage for children.

Continuation can be the death knell for a bill, Whipple said, but it doesn’t have to be. "That can be a polite way of killing things," she said. "But sometimes it’s really a way to take more time for study and attention."

Brink’s insurance package appears still to have some life left, he said. Sen. William Bolling (R-4), chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care, will conduct a study of the state’s health insurance plan, and Brink’s package will be rolled into that study.

"He’s planning a study of whether [state insurance] is operating efficiently, whether there’s good enough outreach and enrollment," Brink said. "I met with the Senator, and the administration people running the program, and we agreed this was the best course. I’m hopeful those issues will be addressed."

Still, Brink said, he was also hoping to see some of the programs enacted by the Warner administration. "There has been a tremendous change from last year," Brink said.

<b>Delegation Divided</b>

<bt>The issue of tax referenda, letting taxpayers in Northern Virginia vote to increase income or sales taxes to fund transportation or education projects in the region, has had as little success in the Assembly as last year.

One bill proposing a sales tax referendum, put forth by Del. John Rollison (R-52), died Tuesday in conference committee. Another bill, proposed last week by Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-35), would set a referendum on using local income taxes in place of sales taxes. That bill is still alive on the Senate floor.

Part of the problem, said Arlington legislators, is that the Northern Virginia delegation has not provided a strong regional voice. "It doesn’t seem that the delegation has been nearly as cohesive as in previous years," Brink said.

But there was disagreement about the divisions in the delegation. "From the House perspective, a number of members of the [Republican majority] are much more beholden to their leadership than their region," Brink said.

From the Senate side, Whipple said, there have just been changes in constituencies. "It’s partly a function of Northern Virginia growing as much as it did," she said. "There are different geographic interests in the past."

With the referenda and budget issues still unresolved, this session in some ways mirrors last year. "The budget I’m certain will be resolved," Brink said. "No one wants to repeat last year. But I’m not at all certain the referenda questions will be."