Local Commentary

Delegate Hull’s Richmond Report

Legislative Gridlock

Having emerged from the just concluded Special Session of the General Assembly, I have been trying to figure out how best to explain to you what happened and what did not happen.

Unfortunately, after operating in a business-like manner for generations, the House of Delegates and Senate of Virginia now resemble the dysfunctional workings of Congress.

Neither entity seems to be able to achieve anything of substance to help the people its members represent, as we proved when we came away from the Special Session with nothing.

We were called into Special Session in March after we failed both to pass a two-year budget in the regular session for the first time in history and to address our mounting transportation crisis.

It took over three months to pass a budget and we got it to the Governor for his signature on the last day of the fiscal year. Then, it took an additional three months to come away with no transportation plan.

Is That All There Is?

The hang up had been that the Senate wanted to include tax increases for transportation in the budget. The House majority objected to both using the budget in that manner and increasing taxes.

Legislative leaders in the House and Senate agreed to put off resolving the transportation debate until later in the year and a budget agreement was then reached.

Instead of calling a separate special session on transportation, it was agreed that we would just continue the one we were in, and it was finally decided to come back for a session of no more than four days.

It only lasted two days as we started last Wednesday and finished on Thursday. Only four bills passed both chambers dealing specifically with transportation.

We passed a Senate bill concerning the disposition of records dealing with public-private partnership projects and a House bill increasing the penalty for trucks that get stuck under bridges.

We also passed a House bill directing the commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation to "report annually on actions and initiatives that involve outsourcing."

Finally, a House bill was approved naming the Commonwealth Transportation Board as responsible for "promoting private investment in transportation infrastructure."

Now, we have not been in session every day since March; only a day or two a week on average. Yet, that is a pitiful showing after nine months of work.

Anatomy of a Disaster

The media and business community in Northern Virginia got excited about legislation to increase fees and taxes for our transportation woes that never stood a change of getting out of committee.

Republican Dave Albo of Fairfax County, who said that he had been working on it for six months, sponsored this legislation, and it changed repeatedly after it was first introduced on September 15.

He did a great job of informing the press about it and enlisting the support of the business community, which seemed to be grasping for any straw that would improve mobility.

But, he did not inform other members of the House Finance Committee, including me, about it. Nor, I am told, did he tell the Speaker of the House about it until a few weeks before introducing it.

Not only that, but he did not consult with local elected leaders and his bill would have mandated that governing bodies in Northern Virginia approve a series of new fees.

These fees included an extra $200 for a new drivers license, a new registration fee of 0.75-percent of the value of a vehicle, and an additional annual registration fee for cars of $30.

Not only did I have trouble voting for these, but I also knew that the anti-tax Republicans on the Finance Committee would never vote for them.

The final version of the bill removed some of these fees, but it added a statewide transportation component that would have taken money from the General Fund.

In the end, just five of the eight Democrats and none of the 14 Republicans on the committee voted for it. I voted against it.

I could not support any diversion of revenue from the General Fund because that is the source of funding for public schools, higher education, public safety, and social services.

Leadership Plan

On the other hand, the House leadership put its energy into a package of bills that passed the House, but died hard in the Senate, that was an even larger raid on the General Fund.

Revenue now going into the General Fund would have been diverted to pay for some transportation projects and to pay off $1.5 billion in transportation bonds.

They seemed to forget that debt is not a revenue source, but a financing strategy, and there would have been no new source of revenue to pay off 20 years worth of bonded indebtedness.

So, after being in Special Session for six months, we have come away with no new funding for needed road and rail projects. We were just left with a lot of bad ideas and four bills that do little.