Down in Richmond

The Virginia General Assembly goes back to work on Wednesday with a heavy workload in what is called the “short session.” For 45 days lawmakers will introduce, debate and compromise on legislation while adjusting the state budget to eliminate a $ 2 billion shortfall.

With little money to spend on ambitious programs or even precious services, most lawmakers will be handicapped when offering legislation. Balancing the budget will be the top priority for most lawmakers this winter. There are many new proposals and some old ones that will come up in this year’s session.

Here are a few:

The budget There’s little choice for lawmakers this year. A number of one-time remedies have reduced the shortfall by hundreds of millions of dollars but there’s a significant amount of belt tightening left to be done. Allowing state colleges to raise tuitions was a start but more tough decisions remain. With state agencies already feeling the squeeze, most lawmakers will be judged next November on how they handled the budget crisis of ’03.

VDOT reform There’s already work being done to fix the “aggressive accounting” used at Virginia’s road building agency. Other legislation this year will also focus on clearing up the VDOT mess. This is welcome news.

Now is also the time for Northern Virginia lawmakers to ban together in an effort to reform the road allocation formula. The present antiquated formula dates back to the 1920s and relies on “primary” and “secondary” road designations. There needs to be legislation that bases funding on the amount of cars which use the roads rather than the current outdated designations. Rural lawmakers will definitely circle the wagon on this issue, but it’s time to begin fighting for real reform. The issue must be pressed.

Cigarette taxes We don’t disagree that smoking causes countless deaths in Virginia each year. But Virginia doesn’t need to profit from it. Raise the tax on cigarettes and the state becomes dependent on smokers.

Photo Red This has a better chance of passing since former House Speaker Vance Wilkins left office and it’s about time. While using cameras to catch red light runners hints of “Big Brother,” it has proven to reduce accidents. Lawmakers should pass Photo Red this year as long as assurances are made in the legislation that prevents localities from using the cameras as a money maker for local budgets. Just as we don’t want the Commonwealth to depend on money produced by addicted smokers, we don’t want to see local governments grow dependent on red light runners for extra cash.

Term limits Virginia is the only state that limits its governor to one term. This should be changed. A governor spends his first two years in office working with his predecessor’s budget. Not until his term is half over can the governor implement his or her spending plan.

The prospect of facing reelection also encourages a governor to work with caution. Would Jim Gilmore have gone for broke on the car tax had he faced reelection in 2001?

A pair of 4-year terms should be allowed.

Trash tax Another budget balancing gimmick. This would place a tax on every ton of garbage processed at area landfills. Prince William residents already pay a local $70 per year trash tax. Any attempt by the state to tax trash will only result in higher hauling fees.

Primary offense Drivers in Virginia are required to wear their seat belt. That’s good. Enforcement of this law can only be done as a secondary offense. This means law enforcement officers cannot pull a driver over only on suspicion that a seat belt is not being used. That’s how it should remain.

Wilder Commission A commission, headed by the former governor, recommended some good proposals for reducing state spending by $750 million. There are some good ideas in the plan which deserve consideration.

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