General Assembly Car Wreck – Who’s to Blame?

The General Assembly special session on transportation drove off the cliff yesterday when the state Senate killed the legislative package submitted by the House. Acrimony was widespread as Gov. Timothy M. Kaine joined lawmakers in both houses in pointing fingers of blame. Said Kaine in a press release issued yesterday:

After months of delay and inaction, the House leadership repeatedly promised to come back for this Special Session to engage in a serious, thoughtful discussion about a long-term transportation solution. The House leadership chose instead to offer bills that were politically expedient – relying on double-counting money, running up the state’s credit card, and diverting existing revenue designated for education, public safety, and health care.

Del. Franklin P. Hall, D-Richmond, voiced a familiar theme: The obstructionist House Republicans refused to compromise. “Clearly there was a failure by the House Republican leadership to try to reach out to the Senate and try to find some common ground,” said Hall as quoted in the Times-Dispatch.

The obstructionist-House meme was replicated by the Daily Press. As John Bull and Hugh Lessig stated outright: “Republicans who control the House of Delegates refused to budge from their no-tax, no-fee, limited-toll position.” If past is prelude, editoral writers around the state will join the chorus in blaming the entire fiasco on the House Republicans.

It’s human nature to think that the other guy is the one who needs to do the compromising. But “compromise” is by definition a two-way street. Permit me a few observations:

  • Fact: The $1 billion-a-year tax proposals advanced by the Axis of Taxes were defeated last spring. Yet Kaine and the Senate re-submitted the very same proposals without meaningful modification of any kind for consideration in the special section. It takes a lot of gall for AoT (Axis of Taxes) partisans to accuse the House of failing to compromise when they made no compromise themselves!
  • Fact: The House of Delegates passed a package that would have injected $2.4 billion into the transportation system. (I’m not endorsing this package, merely noting that the House passed it.) That’s a lot more money than the House had proposed back in the spring. It wasn’t exactly what the AoT wanted, which was permanently higher taxes, but it was a compromise. The Senate deep-sixed it into oblivion.
  • Fact: Recognizing that there is more to solving the transportation crisis than flooding the system with money, the House, backed by many Democrats, passed a package of VDOT and land-use reforms (some of which were tabled until next year) that attempted to address root causes of congestion. These reforms were independent of the tax issue. Gov. Kaine, who has made land-use reforms one of his big talking points, made no visible effort to support or even improve upon these proposals. The Senate shot down all but a handful of the least significant items.

The obstructionist label is usually applied to the group that doggedly opposes change of any kind. That label, I would argue, rightly belongs to those who would blindly prop up the failed, Business As Usual transportation system with new money without making any meaningful effort to change the system.

The obstructionist label also can be applied to those who advocate policies that fly in the face of popular opinion. As documented in a late July poll, a large majority of the electorate opposed the broad-based tax schemes that the Governor and Senate were calling for. The House positions came closer to reflecting the sentiments of popular opinion. The Axis of Taxes positions reflected the sentiments of the business, civic, governmental and journalistic elites.

Despite the effort of the AoT to define the transportation crisis as a lack of fiscal resources, traffic congestion is not a problem that can be solved simply by throwing more money into the system. The progressive forces are those who would change the system — low-tax Republicans on the right and the conservation/environmental camp on the left. The obstructionists are those who doggedly defend the status quo, block change and would tax an unwilling public to advance their own goals.

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12 responses to “General Assembly Car Wreck – Who’s to Blame?”

  1. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Blame is a game.

    The path forward is important.

    The Conservative Republicans can offer the reforms next session.

    Additionally, anyone in the GA could put together a bill that starts to solve the problems.

    For Hampton Roads, a legislator could put together a bill that slapped tolls on I-64 and 460, hit future users (Port of Virginia, trucks and rail) with fees, took a dedicated annual bite from the Transportation Trust Fund, and, if necessary, put out some bonds, to pay for a Third crossing, rail and truck, from the Port to Southside and up an improved corridor.

    There. You have a priority one. You have financing. You may proceed.

    How hard is it to do that?

    Then, a legislator could address priority two…

  2. Anonymous Avatar


    You second “fact” is wrong. The House plan was $2.4 billion over a period of six years.

    Your assertion that, “it would have funneled more than $1 billion a year into the transportation system for another two years” is simply wrong.

    JAB, please explain to me the value of bonds without a dedicated source of revenue from which to pay them off? I can agree with the notion that bonds are a good thing. And with the reality that construction material is getting more and more expensive everyday, building now and paying it off over the long-haul can make sense.

    But the House Republicans believe and are trying to convince the people of Virginia that bonds are really free money. When you consider the staggering amount of consumer debt in America, that argument might be convinincing. But it simply is not responsible.

    The reality is that the House Republicans killed off a good bit of their own plan and their “tiny, tiny morsels” of a plan (as described by Phil Hamilton on the House floor) was simply insufficient to a problem that even Delegate Leo “New Taxes over my dead body” Wardrup says requires at least $1 billion a year in new funding.

  3. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Anonymous 1:03, thanks for calling the error to my attention. I have made the appropriate correction in the original post.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Aside from the obvious political advantage/disadvantage, the House plan troubled me for several reasons.

    If the Assembly agrees to the $2.4 billion in debt for the roads, then what is to keep the House from declaring “Problem Solved?”

    The House was asking counties to take a lot on faith. This is from a group that said the repeal of the Car Tax would be fully reimbursed by the State.

    The House was trying to reverse over 70 years of transportation policy in the Commonwealth in three days. No discussion, no input from outside; basically a closed universe.

    Finally, the House was proposing to pay for part of the transportation improvements by giving local governments money that localities currently receive from the State. How do counties and cities come out ahead if the pie is only cut up into smaller slices?

  5. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    The dedicated revenue source is the same source for all taxes – the economy. If you don’t raise taxes the economy will expand, capital grows, and you have more revenue. It’s the same dedicated revenue source as the Warner administration bonds the voters supported – the economy.

  6. To put all of the blame on the Governor & Senate for the stalemate is not truly representative of the facts.

    The AoT, either rightly or wrongly, knows that there is not enough money available in the General Fund to fix the current transportation system. This blog has even said as much.

    On the other side, the HOD proposed several good alternatives to raising taxes but they are unproven, to say the least. Reforming VDOT and getting the most bang for your buck when it comes to building roads is fine by me. Creating UDA’s sounds like a good way to reduce sprawl, and creating UTSD’s sounds like a good plan on paper. But, what happens if the HOD’s plan is not the magic bullet they claim it is? Then what? We’re back to square one and the problem will only have gotten worse over time. I’m willing to accept change, just as long as it isn’t change for the sake of change.

    Like it or not, more money is needed to build roads. Even where I live MAJOR NEW INFRASTRUCTURE needs to be built. To issue bonds in any amount and then not provide a sustainable source of revnue to pay them back is a risky proposition.

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    I’m basically on the other side of this debate from JAB but I have no problem with bonding some of this and paying for it out of GF revenue. But bonds and the growing economy won’t pay for the maintance needs and the maintenance backlogs, and it’s stupid to use the credit card for potholes, bridge repair and repaving. Had the house bent just a little, recognized that an increase in the gas tax (for the first time in 20 YEARS) was the way to pay for maintenance, its “plan” might have had some credibility. And if the House had really pumped a billion every two years into construction long term (as they fooled Bacon into thinking they had) then the boys and girls would still be in town polishing a conference report….

  8. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    If transportation funding needs are so important, why do we tolerate VDOT’s operation without cost controls; the process whereby the CTB funds projects based on who has the best lobbyist; the failure to assess and collect cost-based development impact fees on all construction, whether connected with rezoning or by right; the spending of what will be well more than $4 billion on the Silver Line, when it won’t do a darn thing to reduce traffic; etc.; etc.?

    It’s much easier to try to raise taxes than it is to make reforms. Transportation in Virginia is designed not to move people and goods, but rather to facilitate development, enhance the value of land and to keep connected contractors working. However, the average Virginian has started to understand this and simply is tired of paying more, to receive less. Make reforms now and then let’s talk about funding. Show the average Virginian blood from the slaying of the transportation sacred cows and let’s talk revenues.

  9. Windbreaker Avatar

    Typical comments from Gov’s mansion on…

    Monday – “Education is the most important product in Virginia.”

    Tuesday – “Transportation is the focus of my administration. Nothing is more important.”

    Wednesday – “Schools need more computers. I’m focusing my energy on more funding for your children.”

    Thursday – “We need higher taxes, because dammit, our budget has no room for transportation.”

    Friday – “Teachers need raises, no matter how poorly their students perform. Salaries will increase, guaranteed.”

    Seriously, not every part of VA’s budget can have the same size slice of pie. Is anyone in the Gov’s house checking the Commonwealth’s distribution of funds? Of course there isn’t spare change for roadway projects when we’re headed towards a 1 school employee-to-1.5 pupil ratio (among other wasteful endeavors…)

  10. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Anon 3:06: If I saw numbers that made a convincing case, then I would go along with a gas tax hike. I haven’t seen that. The boogie for HR is less than $400 m @ year to do everything. If we set priorities, then it is achievable with resources without if raising the gas tax. Again, if I saw numbers the other way, then I would support raising the gas tax.

  11. Myaybe Gold H2O has hit on the answer. Issue the bonds, build the infrastructure, don’t supply the revenue stream to pay them off and then default.

    You get the roads for free and the risk is on the bondholders.

    Or, let the banks foreclose on the roads and operate them as tolls until the bonds are piad off. At least that way someone with financial responsibility and knowledge will be managing the system. ;-).

    Shucks, anything is better than what the GA did or didn’t do this week.

  12. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    There’s no consensus on transportation. Moreover, there is a considerable lack of trust by people of both political parties in the elected officials on any issue connected with land use. There is a strong belief that the goal of those supporting tax increases is to build roads and rail in locations that would enable more development.

    For example, there are still many landowners pushing for an outer beltway because they own land nearby. Many are pushing for construction of the Silver Line because it would enrich their property. These projects have nothing to do with improving transportation.

    Fix the system first. I suspect that, if there were trust on land use issues, there would be support for increasing taxes and fees for transportation. But Governor Kaine and the Senate need to take action restoring trust.

    The Governor should announce that the Silver Line would either be moved back to the median of the Dulles Toll Road or the Tysons landowners can build it under the PPPA.

    The General Assembly should authorize any county or city whose voters approve to enact adequate public facilities ordinances.

    The many VDOT reforms proposed should be enacted and VDOT’s performance thereunder measured.

    The General Assembly should pass legislation enabling Transit Oriented Development zones where added density could be built so long as: 1) the transit systems have adequate capacity to handle the added growth; 2) sufficient impact fees or proffers are obtained to pay a reasonable amount, with the added tax revenues, to cover capital and operating costs for new public infrastructure to support the growth; and 3) parking within such zones would be drastically limited and commodified (a market in parking spaces would be created. Parties without need for all of their limited spaces could sell them to others).

    The Commonwealth should adopt policies to encourage electric companies to deploy broadband over power lines (the third wire to homes, businesses and farms).

    In urband and suburban areas, businesses that can manage their work force to minimize the use of primary roads between 5 am and 9 pm through teleworking, telecommuting or staggering work hours should receive tax credits from they are reducing the need for the State to construct and maintain roads.

    Encouraging job growth in outlying locations. Since both NoVA and Hampton Roads appear to import workers, state business development efforts should concentrate on bringing new jobs outside those areas.

    The CTB needs to reformed. All contacts with the CTB should be required to be reduced to writing and posted on the Internet. CTB funding decisions should be made on a record and its decisions explained. Alternatives should be considered and evaluated.

    Let’s make transportation about moving people and goods again. Then, let’s talk revenues.

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