Special session devoted to transportation needed

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 14, 2006

With Virginia in the midst of its third budget impasse in six years, it may be hard to remember that these events are a new occurrence.

Such stalemates have not routinely happened in Virginia’s history, and it is instructive to examine why.

During the last impasse in 2004, I was one of 17 House Republicans who supported a compromise to end the stalemate.

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Then, our concern was Virginia’s ability to fund its growing obligations for education, health care, and public safety.

Today, our challenge is transportation.

To ensure the continued economic well-being of Virginia, our roads, railways, and public transit systems must be upgraded.

For Hampton Roads, that need is especially great, as our transportation challenges are compounded by geography.

Simply put, it is significantly more expensive to construct roads over water, and water surrounds our region.

How then, you may wonder, can someone who supported the 2002 referendum for transportation funding and the 2004 budget compromise support the current House plan for a budget and its approach to transportation?

As an advocate for improved transportation in our region, I know the proposal being advanced by the House n which envisions a special session of the General Assembly to address transportation n is the correct approach to achieve real, sustainable progress on this critical issue.

Right now, Governor Kaine and the Senate want to enact a series of tax increases to pay for transportation improvements.

Collectively, their proposals would increase the price of gasoline, the sales tax on vehicles, the tax on automotive insurance policies, and the tax on selling a home.

They are trying to pass their proposals to hike taxes at a time when homeowners across Virginia are receiving notice of their property assessments n and are being informed of staggering increases.

This situation is especially acute in Hampton Roads, where annual assessment increases of over 20% are becoming the norm.

Raising taxes is never easy.

Raising them under these circumstances is almost unthinkable.

Still, even if the circumstances were less prohibitive, Governor Kaine and the Senate are going about raising taxes in exactly the wrong manner n both historically and constitutionally.

The Governor and the Senate have embedded their proposals to raise taxes in their respective budgets. By placing their tax hikes directly in the budget, despite not having been able to pass those increases through legislation, the Governor and the Senate guaranteed the current stand-off.

The resulting impasse endangers funding for education, health care, and public safety.

Right now, local governments, state agencies, health care service providers, and educational institutions are unwilling spectators to a fight they did not initiate.

The right way to address an issue of this magnitude is the way Virginia has traditionally employed.

When advocating the imposition of a sales tax 40 years ago, Gov. Mills Godwin called the General Assembly into a special session n long after it had completed its work on Virginia’s budget.

Gov. Gerald Baliles followed Governor Godwin’s example 20 years later, calling the General Assembly into a special session restricted to transportation in 1986 n again, after it had completed its work on a budget.

Those Governors chose to hold special sessions separately n thereby avoiding unnecessary budget stalemates n because it was the right approach.

By doing so, they showed an understanding that holding the budget hostage to gain advantage for a legislative agenda does not serve the Commonwealth or its citizens.

They also knew that in order to enact change, one must first build widespread public support.

On Monday, the House Appropriations Committee, on which I serve, approved a new and reasonable alternative, one intended as a budget compromise.

We set aside a portion of the existing transportation dollars and surplus our budget employs to increase transportation funding by creating a Transportation Reserve Fund.

These monies would be allocated separately, during a special session of the General Assembly devoted to transportation.

Now is the time to act to pass a budget for the citizens of the Commonwealth.

I am willing to roll up my sleeves, as I did in 2004, to work with the Governor and all members of the General Assembly, to find a solution for transportation funding. As in 2004 there are no easy answers, but I am confident we can solve our transportation challenges by working together during a special session devoted to transportation.

S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) represents Virginia’s 76th District in the House of Delegates.