The Clock is Running!

A response piece to Sen. Marty Williams by Delegate Phil Hamilton of Newport News who is one of the 11 conferees on the budget. It ran in the Newport News Daily Press.

By Phil Hamilton

I read with interest the recent editorial in which state Senator Martin Williams made the case for transportation tax increases. I agree with Senator Williams that transportation is an issue that must be addressed.

It is an issue, however, that does not supersede the need to pass a state budget for the Commonwealth of Virginia. While the Senate holds out for a billion dollar a year tax increase, its extortion tactic is “holding the rest of the budget hostage.”

Here is a stubborn fact that Senator Williams failed to mention: The Senate’s refusal to negotiate a resolution on the next biennial state budget prevents all state agencies, including colleges and universities, prisons, mental health hospitals, local governments, and public schools from knowing what financial support they will receive from the state beginning July 1, 2006.

Because the transportation issue has yet to be resolved, the House budget includes an additional one billion dollars for transportation to be appropriated in the current or future special sessions. The specific budget language, Item 463.10, is as follows:

Included in this item is $806,200,000 in the first year and $224,100,000 in the second year from the general fund to be used to implement the Transportation Initiative of 2006 pursuant to such legislation as may be adopted during the 2006 Special Session I of the General Assembly or subsequent Sessions of the General Assembly.

However, because the Senate refuses to work to pass the budget bill they received from the House on April 12, 2006, even this funding is being jeopardized. This language guarantees that the House will consider the transportation issue once the state budget has been passed and signed into law. There is no reasonable rationale for impacting the rest of state government and its aid to localities because of a difference over one issue.

In recent history, four different governors have wanted to address a major public policy initiative in their first term. In 1966, Governor Godwin wanted to impose a state sales tax to create the community college system. In 1986, Governor Baliles wanted to address transportation. In 1994, Governor Allen wanted to abolish parole. Finally, in 1998, Governor Gilmore wanted car tax relief while several legislators wanted school construction funding. In each instance, the state budget was passed and a Special Session was called to address these initiatives.

These Governors, working with the leaders of the House and the Senate, did not hold the budget hostage until their public policy initiative was resolved. They recognized that their primary responsibility was to pass a state budget and resolve the remaining issue(s) in a special session. In each instance, the governors were successful in addressing their public policy initiative. Governor Kaine should follow this successful model of leadership in his desire to address the transportation issue this year.

As for the concern over using the general fund for transportation, Senator Williams must have forgotten that the sales tax increase for transportation in 1986 is a use of general fund revenues that otherwise would be used for public education, public safety, health care…The same is true for the use of recordation taxes for the funding of Route 58 and transportation in Northern Virginia that was instituted in 1989.

Senator Williams must have also forgotten that the budgets submitted by Governors Warner and Kaine and amended by the Virginia Senate, with his affirmative vote, uses $339 million of general fund surpluses and general fund revenues from the insurance premiums tax for transportation.

Senator Williams declares “What Virginians deserve from them now are constructive contributions.” I agree that constructive contributions are needed, however, the issue that needs to be addressed first is the state budget.

Unless Senator Williams and his Senate colleagues want to continue to jeopardize state funding for Virginia’s public schools, colleges and universities, mental health and other health care services, public safety, aid to localities, state employees, the environment, and the other areas that the state budget impacts, he should demand that his Senate budget conferees negotiate an acceptable biennial budget agreement immediately. I’m sure he is aware that the Senate budget conferees have only been willing to meet with the House budget conferees five times since March 10, 2006.

By passing its budget, the House has committed to addressing the transportation issue once the state budget is passed and signed into law. The Senate should seal this commitment by working to finalize a state budget. From my perspective, the real ball, the most recent version of the state budget, has been in the Senate’s court since April 12, 2006. The clock is running!