As usual, transportation was the primary topic of the six state legislators that gave their annual post General Assembly assessment to members of the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce during the group's First Tuesday Luncheon at the Mount Vernon Country Club.
Also, as usual, the five Democrats and one Republican viewed the adopted legislation to provide an estimated $2.5 billion for statewide transportation funding from entirely different perspectives. The reason was succinctly summarized by State Sen. Jay O'Brien (R-39), "It's an election year."
He categorized the bill, which is designed to provide up to $500 million a year to Northern Virginia, as "a compromise between the House and the Senate." That description was challenged by State Sen. Patricia S. "Patsy" Ticer (D-30) who saw it as "a compromise among like minded people. It's really a misnomer to label it a compromise."
Kicking off the five minute individual presentations, O'Brien said that Gov. Timothy Kaine's planned trip around the Commonwealth telling people what is wrong with the adopted transportation legislation is a mistake because "if he vetoes this legislation he won't get another chance for transportation legislation during his term." The only reason this "compromise" occurred was because it is an election year, according to O'Brien.
"Can we do better than what was passed — yes. Will we do better — no," he stated rhetorically. "The next time a compromise like this will appear is four years from now — after Kaine is gone," he said.
State Sen. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-36) acknowledged, "I did not vote for the transportation bill and I believe the Governor will make significant changes to it. The problem with the bill as passed is that all local governments have to buy into this. If none of the local governments vote for this it won't work."
The adopted legislation provides statewide funding of transportation projects through current funds and additional funds, authorizing localities in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to impose additional fees for transportation, and several administrative and efficiency reforms impacting transportation, according to the Virginia Division of Legislative Services.
It authorizes the Commonwealth Transportation Board to issue bonds in an aggregate amount not to exceed $2.5 billion for statewide transportation funding. It also draws funds from the State General Funds to be repaid later. These funds are used to finance other critical state services such as health and education. That is one of the primary objections of the Governor and most Democrats.
Del. Kristen J. Amundson (D-44) described the transportation legislation as a "bill in need of major surgery. It was done quickly and sloppily."
Del. David L. Englin (D-45) also acknowledged he voted against the transportation measure. "The notion that this legislation brings back $500 million a year to Northern Virginia is a farce," he said.
"It will bring back $80 million after all elements are taken into account. It's structured like taking your kids' college fund to pay for the mortgage," he said.
"Loudoun and Prince William counties have already said they won't pass the required taxes. I expect that Fairfax County and Alexandria City will take the same stand. $80 million a year is a pittance for Northern Virginia. I look forward to the Governor making major amendments to this bill," Englin said.
The only one among the five Democrats to say he voted for the legislation was Del. Mark Sickles (D-43). "I voted for it even though it is a piece of flawed legislation. But, I'm hoping the Governor will make a lot of changes," Sickles said.
He cited as a main flaw the fact that the bill provides that all taxes referred to in the legislation have to be raised to make it operative. "You can't pick and choose," he said. He also noted that both Lee and Mount Vernon district supervisors have remained rather silent on this. That puts them in a better situation to be instrumental in working out a compromise depending on the Governor's actions, according to Sickles.
During the question and answer period, Amundson stated, "The transportation funding package only works if Northern Virginia steps up to the plate." Ticer added, "To say we are never going to have new taxes is stifling growth in Virginia."
IN ADDITION to discussing transportation each made brief comments on other legislation they had sponsored and/or supported during the 2007 session. These included:
* O'Brien: Restricting the use of cell phones by teenagers while driving.
* Puller: The consolidation of long-term care items that will
now be administered under the Secretary of Health
and Human Resources. She also pointed to legislation authorizing Mount Vernon Estate to sell whiskey distilled at George Washington's Distillery.
* Ticer: The reenactment of the red light camera legislation to deter motorists from running red light traffic signals. She also acknowledge disappointment with the failure to pass a State minimum wage increase.
* Amundson: The adoption of a Work Force Development bill that she predicts will enable more people to afford higher education; the Commonwealth Scholars bill that "will increase student capabilities in science and math;" and the ability of homeless shelters to once again "serve home cooked food" without penalties from the Health Department.
* Englin: Passage of a bill he introduced dealing with a hospital patient's right to determine who may visit. It would prohibit others from excluding visitors authorized by the patient.
* Sickles: The re-regulation of electric power that he saw as preventing the swift escalation of electric bills that occurred in Maryland. "We believe we now have a system going forward that will allow the system to work to the benefit of everyone," he said.