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State Budget Overtime

Whoever wins, the folks who sit in traffic jams and pay the tolls and taxes stand to lose, especially if the game goes into a second overtime — or a third.

The media haven't done much to explain what's at stake — the concrete and steel projects that will or won't be funded — preferring to cover the political contest like a sporting event.

They have a point. The special session resembles a grudge match between the antagonists of the 2004 budget battle. But if that's all it is, our legislators and our governor are not the statesmen we deserve — and Virginians have worse problems than traffic jams in Tidewater's tunnels and cannonballing 18-wheelers on I-81.

The issues before the special session are complex in detail, but remarkably simple in principle. Everyone agrees on three things: that Virginia faces desperate transportation challenges; that addressing these needs means investing new money; and that much of the current budget surplus should be used to fund the most critical needs.

However, in terms of Virginia's transportation challenges, a one-year budget surplus represents a drop in the bucket. The battle is over where to find additional resources.

As a matter of both politics and principle, the conservative Republican majority in the House of Delegates opposes tax increases, preferring to finance additional transportation projects with debt.

Gov. Tim Kaine and the Senate's more moderate Republican majority insist that long-term projects require a long-term, dedicated revenue stream, i.e., new taxes. The Democratic minorities in both houses support the governor's approach.

This choice — new taxes or new debt — dictates both sides' legislative strategies.

The governor and his Senate allies fear Virginians' traditional opposition to new taxes — particularly a proposed tax that would effectively raise gasoline prices by 6 cents. Hoping to smuggle the tax increase through as part of an overall budget deal, they insist on treating the biennial budget and new transportation funding as a single issue.

The House Republicans, confident that Virginians will prefer new debt to new taxes, insist on separating the budget from the transportation question. They propose to complete the budget now — by creating an unallocated "transportation reserve fund" of up to $1 billion. This fund, informally known as "the Blob," would remain unallocated until a second special session in September. At that later session, the Assembly would also consider additional transportation projects — to be funded by debt, not taxes.

In a sense, the central question at the special session is whether it is dealing with one issue or two. If voters come to see the budget and new transportation funding as a single issue, the governor and the Senate win. If voters perceive the issues as separable, the House Republicans gain the upper hand.

The key to each strategy is that Virginia's present biennial budget expires June 30. State agencies and localities — particularly school divisions — urgently need to learn what they'll receive in the new budget. As the clock ticks down toward June 30, the pressure for a budget deal grows.

Unfortunately, each side believes this pressure will eventually force the other side to cave, so neither is eager to compromise. And with both sides defining leadership in terms of standing firm, Virginia seems headed for a partial government shutdown, damaging delays in local budget processes, and a second legislative "overtime" later this summer.

The only way out is for one side or the other to redefine the issues as something other than a rematch of 2004. The challenge of leadership — as always — is to recognize that times have changed. In 2006, Gov. Kaine is best positioned to reframe the debate in winning terms.

Since 2004, public opinion has shifted dramatically toward doing something about our continuing dependence on fossil fuels. With gasoline prices approaching record highs, Virginians are finally coming to terms with the realities of a global market in which we must bid against Asia's fast-growing economies for every barrel of oil. It seems we are finally ready to address the need for energy conservation.

Two other factors contribute to this new realism. The quagmire in Iraq — and the developing confrontation with Iran — dramatize the geopolitical ramifications of our addiction to Middle Eastern oil. At the same time, most Virginians are at last waking up to the urgent problem of global warming.

If they accept the House Republicans' challenge to debate transportation funding in terms of taxes, the governor and his Senate allies will fight on losing ground.

However, if Virginians are finally ready to make real sacrifices in order to reduce our dangerous dependence on oil, Gov. Kaine has an opportunity to redefine the issues in global terms.

Suppose the governor and his Senate allies accepted the House proposal, completing the budget now. The governor would then need to summon a second special session to allocate the "Blob" and consider additional transportation projects.

Suppose that, in calling the second session, the governor declared that the time had come to address our dependence on oil — and cars. Suppose he drew a line in the sand — vowing to veto any transportation project other than mass transit and freight rail, and any funding plan except an increase in the gasoline tax.

He could then devote the interim to campaigning statewide, building public support for energy conservation. The gasoline tax could be recast as a short-term incentive to conserve, with the proceeds devoted to long-term conservation through mass transit.

It's a bold stratagem. But if he succeeded, Gov. Kaine could step out of Mark Warner's shadow, capture the emerging spirit of the times and put Virginia in the forefront of the energy conservation movement.

Even if he failed, he would nonetheless show Virginia — and the nation — what true leadership looks like. S

Frederick T. ('Rick) Gray Jr. lives at Bermuda Hundred in Chesterfield County. He's worked as an actor, high school teacher and lawyer, and has served as Virginia's secretary of the commonwealth.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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