General Assembly Report column by Del. Ben Cline
With the final week of the 2008 General Assembly session upon us, 100 delegates and 40 senators have begun to close up their Richmond offices and return to their homes, families, and communities to discuss the accomplishments of the past 60 days.
But just as we began looking past the end of session, a decision last Friday by the Virginia Supreme Court sent shockwaves through the Capitol. The Court ruled that a central provision of the comprehensive transportation agreement that was approved last year violated the Virginia constitution. In the blink of an eye, the prospects for an on-time finish to this year’s session have greatly diminished.
The provision that the court struck down gave unelected regional authorities in Northern Virginia and Tidewater the ability to impose new taxes and collect them for local transportation projects. I opposed this provision and voted against it when the governor proposed it as part of his amendments to the bill (HB 3202) last year. After all, “no taxation without representation” was a battle cry of Virginia’s founding fathers during our original fight for independence.(Incidentally, the other big mistake in the transportation bill that limited the abuser fees to just Virginia drivers was also a governor’s amendment that I opposed.)
While our area was not impacted by the Supreme Court’s decision, it left a $300 million hole in the local transportation budgets of Northern Virginia and Tidewater. Projects that had been slated to begin this year are on hold while lawmakers figure out a solution that passes constitutional muster. Whatever is decided, I do not believe that we should wait for a special session this summer to act. We should pass legislation before we adjourn this weekend that addresses our statewide transportation needs.
Some suggest that a gas-tax increase would solve the problem. Unfortunately, the gas tax would have to be raised by between 25 and 50 cents statewide in order to raise the $300 million needed for those affected regions. An increase that huge would be detrimental to Virginia’s economy, to family budgets, and to the businesses that ship goods and provide services across the state. Others have suggested that instead of giving unelected regional authorities the power to levy new taxes, the General Assembly should give the power to elected local governments. That was actually the original proposal that we passed last year in HB 3202 before the governor offered his unconstitutional amendment to the bill.
While I have supported giving Northern Virginia and Tidewater greater authority to address their own transportation needs, I do not support raising statewide taxes to pay for them. That’s because our $78 billion state budget is already large enough to meet those needs – in fact, the size of the state budget has more than doubled in the last 10 years. Instead of raising taxes, we must attack wasteful spending more aggressively and recognize that the state cannot (and should not) be funding new programs during this uncertain economic climate. Raising taxes while failing to control spending only papers over the inefficiencies in our state government, and I will not support higher taxes so long as there continues to be wasteful and unnecessary spending in our budget.
Even with the Supreme Court’s decision, we can already see the outlines of what would otherwise be considered a successful session. Bills to reform our mental-health laws in response to the tragedy at Virginia Tech are either nearly completed or already on the governor’s desk. A compromise bill to address abusive practices in the payday-lending industry is likely to receive bipartisan support from both chambers this week.
In response to the Michael Vick dogfighting case, the House and Senate have passed a comprehensive bill to increase the penalties for all forms of animal fighting. And with home-mortgage foreclosures near record highs last year, the House and Senate are finalizing legislation to ensure that homeowners have adequate information on ways to avoid foreclosure and can take advantage of available options instead of losing their homes.
I look forward to updating folks next week, either from home or from Richmond, about the conclusion of the budget negotiations and the progress of the transportation debate.
Feel free to call me with questions or input on issues important to you at 434.946.9908, or you can email me at [email protected].
Ben Cline represents the 24th House District in the Virginia General Assembly.