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Once More with Feeling

The General Assembly will meet again to tackle transportation, but conflicting plans may gridlock solutions

Competing proposals and competing philosophies have set the stage for a transportation showdown — or stalemate — in Richmond next week.

"We all agree there is a transportation problem," said Del. Tom Rust (R-86) during a press conference last week. "Where we do not agree is how to fund it."

The General Assembly has technically been holding a special session since March, although they haven't met in months. Legislators are now poised to re-convene to address the transportation problem. More than 100 bills are still left for consideration during the four-day session that begins Sept. 27.

A handful of bills will likely take center stage and determine whether the state, and Northern Virginia in particular, will see new dedicated transportation funding. Each of the various plans would dedicate new money toward transportation. Some would create new taxes, while others would use a portion of existing taxes.

One of the most talked about plans, which could raise $400 million annually for Northern Virginia, is the Albo-Rust bill. Named for Fairfax County delegates Dave Albo (R-42) and Rust, the bill would authorize local governments to raise revenue through a package of "fees."

Local governments, including the boards of supervisors and city councils, in Northern Virginia would increase various fees and taxes, and dedicate the money from the increase to transportation. If a locality does not implement all of the increases, it will not be able to receive any of the money.

Most of the increases would affect visitors (an increase in the hotel and car rental tax) and builders (an impact fee for each new house built). One part of the Albo-Rust plan would increase vehicle registration fees $30 per year.

The money would then be spent to fund Metro and a host of smaller projects. The balance would be turned over to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority to spend on its transportation plan. [see sidebar]

"We raise it in Northern Virginia, we keep it in Northern Virginia," Rust said.

Local governments, however, are not excited about the proposal. For one, the bill would require local governments to increase taxes next year, when many supervisors are up for re-election.

Additionally, said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Gerry Connolly (D), transportation is supposed to be a state responsibility.

"We're willing to partner with them. We're not willing to shoulder the entire burden on our taxpayers," he said at a different press conference Friday. "This is a scheme to say you did something for transportation and then pass the buck to local government."

"It can't be 100 percent on our side," said Arlington County Board President Chris Zimmerman (D). Both Connolly and Zimmerman said that local governments in Northern Virginia are united in their resistance to bearing the entire burden.

Northern Virginia's assembly delegation, however, sees it differently. By making the tax local, they say, it keeps the money here. Money sent to Richmond, can easily be hijacked and sent to other parts of the state. "This is the guarantee that it stays here," said Del. Vivian Watts (D-39).

Connolly and Zimmerman both pointed to Northern Virginia's regional gas tax which is a state tax, and which they say has not been appropriated by other regions. "There's a precedent," Connolly said.

BEFORE THE TAX hikes could come before the local governments, it would have to get out of the General Assembly. There are numerous other proposals before the assembly. Several take a portion of an existing tax and mandate that it be dedicated to transportation.

Del. Tim Hugo (R-40) has introduced multiple bills which would dedicate a portion of existing taxes to transportation funding. One would use the recordation tax (paid as part of closing costs during a home purchase), another the insurance license fee, and another the sales tax.

Republican leadership of the House of Delegates, including Speaker Bill Howell (R-Fredericksburg), say it is irresponsible to raise taxes when the state has a budget surplus.

The Fairfax County Republican Committee also weighed in, saying tax increases are unnecessary and funding should be taken from the surplus.

Delegates who seek more funds say that surpluses don't last forever. The entire surplus would not begin to fund Northern Virginia's needs — if the money were spread across the state, the amount would be trivial. "When we [Northern Virginia] need $700 million a year, and we have $500 million statewide, that is not an acceptable solution," said Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-34).

Devolites Davis has a plan of her own which would raise some of the funds through local taxes and some through state taxes, but she says she is not optimistic about its chances.

She suggested that people contact Hugo and Prince William County Republican delegates Jeff Frederick and Scott Lingamfelter. All three sit on the Finance Committee in the House of Delegates, and their votes will be key. Davis noted that if Northern Virginia's legislators are not united behind a particular plan, it makes it easier for lawmakers from other parts of the state to oppose a change.

Devolites Davis also suggested that businesspeople reach out to their colleagues in other parts of the state. The business community could help with offers of support, in particular financial support, for legislators who vote for the plan. "The business community needs to let them know they will be rewarded," she said.

The major hurdle, Devolites Davis said, and others agreed, will be the House Finance Committee, where any tax legislation must go.

Watts said that 11 of the committee's 22 members have signed a pledge not to increase taxes. "I don't know how you break that stacking of the committee," Watts said. "It's really going to be a serious problem."

Del. Vince Callahan (R-34) said that the no-tax pledge contains a provision that allows the signatories to increase taxes if they have lowered other taxes. Callahan said that in recent years, the assembly has decreased the food tax and eliminated the estate tax. "They ought to be reminded they are keeping their pledge because they voted to reduce taxes in other areas," he said.

Albo predicts that his bill will either pass or fail by one vote in the finance committee. He notes that Howell opposes his plan, but points out that he has just one vote. While he does not like to call it going to battle with Howell over the issue, it may come to that. He notes that both he and Callahan hold key committee chairs and will be able to generate some support. "[Howell]'s going to have to marshal votes above what Dave Albo and Vince Callahan can."