July 12, 2008

Kaine Blasts Fruitless Special Session

By Michael Sluss [email protected] (804) 697-1585

Gov. Tim Kaine compared the General Assembly's unproductive special session to a television sitcom Thursday, but he wasn't laughing about a debacle that left Virginia without a fix for its transportation funding woes.

The special session called June 23 by Kaine ended in the wee hours of Thursday morning as many had predicted it would, with a politically divided legislature deadlocked over whether to increase taxes to cover mounting highway maintenance funding shortfalls. The disagreement over statewide transportation funding -- aired in six days of debate spread out over a 17-day span -- also prevented lawmakers from reaching a deal to fund congestion relief in the traffic-choked regions of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Lawmakers also failed to fill vacancies on the Virginia Supreme Court, the State Corporation Commission and several circuit courts throughout the state, leaving Kaine to make recess appointments that would have to be confirmed by the General Assembly next year.

Kaine and his Democratic legislative allies pinned the blame for the transportation stalemate on Republican leaders in the House of Delegates, who steadfastly opposed statewide tax increases and attacked plans offered by the governor and Democrats in the Senate.

"I don't think I've ever seen a group of people work so hard to do nothing," Kaine said during a press conference Thursday afternoon.

"It was like a 'Seinfeld' episode; I mean a show about nothing," the governor said. "In the House, it was a road session about nothing."

The Republican-run House, voting mostly along party lines, defeated a bill to impose new statewide taxes for highway maintenance and regional taxes for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, a persistent critic of Kaine's transportation proposals, said tax increases should not be considered while Virginians are coping with rising gas prices and economic uncertainty.

"I think, at this point in time, that the public is worried and they don't want massive tax increases," Griffith said. "They're concerned about their jobs, they're concerned about their quality of life remaining the same, and it's not the time for massive tax increases."

Kaine insists the state needs additional revenue to erase a highway maintenance funding shortfall that is forcing the state to divert money from its road construction budget. The state will shift $388 million from construction to maintenance in the current fiscal year to cover the shortfall, according to administration projections.

Griffith and other Republicans criticized Kaine for calling the special session without first building support for a specific funding fix. Griffith accused Kaine of calling the session for political purposes in an effort to paint Republicans as obstructionists and help Democrats in the 2009 elections.

"That was the plan from the beginning," Griffith said.

Kaine said Republican leaders showed little interest in working with him on the issue. The governor noted Thursday that Griffith skipped a meeting Kaine held with legislative leaders in the spring and dismissed it as a not productive.

Griffith, an attorney, said Thursday: "I had court that day and I didn't have any desire to go back down there and be lectured to again."

Kaine had only soft support for his own plan, which would have increased the vehicle sales tax, vehicles registration fees and the grantor's tax on home sales for road and transit programs. The House Rules Committee killed the proposal late last month but advanced a Senate bill that contained increases in the gas tax and other levies and a reduction in the sales tax on groceries.

During a nearly two-week recess, House and Senate Democrats reached a compromise that allowed House Democrats to strip the gas tax increase from the bill. Kaine said Thursday that he also supported the compromise and wanted it to pass.

The House defeated the bill by a 59-39 vote, but not before frustrating Democrats with a series of parliamentary maneuvers that included a surprise decision to revive Kaine's original bill. When House Democrats argued that they preferred to vote on the Senate bill, Republicans accused them of abandoning the governor's proposal.

House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong, D-Henry County, disputed GOP assertions that Kaine called the session for political purposes, saying: "We were up there voting on bills that we thought were material solutions to transportation."

Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax County, said that no transportation funding fix may get through the General Assembly unless the 2009 elections produce a power shift in the House. All 100 House seats will be up for election next year.

"Based on what I've seen down there, that's the only way to get a bill out," Saslaw told reporters Wednesday night.

Kaine said Thursday that he will raise the issue with lawmakers again next year in the last legislative session of his term.

"We're going to work on problems that matter to Virginians, and this is a problem that matters to Virginians," Kaine said.

YES Del. Ward Armstrong, D-Henry County

YES Del. Jim Shuler, D-Blacksburg

NO Del. Kathy Byron, R-Campbell County

NO Del. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson County

NO Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge County

NO Del. Anne Crockett-Stark, R-Wytheville

NO Del. William Fralin, R-Roanoke

NO Del. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem

NO Del. Dave Nutter, R-Christiansburg

NO Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin County

NO Del. Onzlee Ware, D-Roanoke

*Del. Lacey Putney, I-Bedford, missed Wednesday's session.

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