Half way

Members of the Virginia General Assembly will be working overtime this week as both houses put in extra hours to pass legislation and amend the proposed $52 billion state budget prior to the session’s half way point. The Senate will then transfer the bills it passed over to the House and vice versa with surviving legislation going to Gov. Warner for his signature this spring.

Most of this year’s legislative work has focused on raising money to balance the budget. Here’s how the General Assembly is doing at the half-way point based on some priorities we listed more than a month ago.

Budget – How does the General Assembly cover a $2.1 billion shortfall without raising taxes? Just transfer some money, leverage some bonds and nickel and dime Virginians with fee increases. Both houses have proposed a balanced budget with a small pay increase (2-to-2.5 percent) for state workers and little else. That’s to be expected, considering the hard economic times.

The House of Delegates is proposing no new taxes but there are increased fees. Among them, a $5 increase in the cost of a 5-year driver’s license (from $15-$20) in addition to a 2.4 percent increase in the price of hard liquor at the state’s monopolized ABC stores.

Both the House and Senate proposed reopening all the state’s DMV offices, but only the House budget will reestablish Wednesday hours. Missing is a discount that encourages drivers to renew tags and driver’s licenses online.

VDOT reform – The jury’s still out on what shape this will take. Delegate Jack Rollison, R-Woodbridge, was able to advance a bill demanding periodic updates to the Commonwealth Transportation Board on costly road projects in order to keep an eye on rising costs. We have yet to see any bills that would restructure the CTB, reapportion transportation districts or amend the allocation of funds.

Cigarette taxes – The General Assembly has wisely voted against a statewide increase in the cigarette tax. If the state needs money, it shouldn’t raise it by encouraging Virginians to smoke.

Photo Red – Despite a Photo-Red bill surviving the Senate, it’s been decided in the House of Delegates that no such legislation will make it to the governor’s desk this year. Having nursed her bill to the House floor last month, Delegate Michele McQuigg, R-Woodbridge, was very disappointed (as were we) when lawmakers killed the bill by sending it back to committee with little debate and no up-or-down vote.

Term limits – Two outdated laws that only Virginia employs are the banning of radar detectors and limiting the governor to a single term. The House Privileges and Elections Committee passed a proposed constitutional amendment to allow the next governor to serve more than one term. It must pass this year’s General Assembly and again next year before it goes to the ballot for a statewide referendum.

Seat belts – The House killed a bill allowing primary enforcement of seat belt laws while the Senate has approved a similar measure. While seat belts do save lives, it’s not the duty of the commonwealth to strap every individual into their seats.

Et cetra – There are other items the General Assembly has dropped altogether because of “a need for more study”or the fact that there’s an election in November. Among these items was legislation allowing counties similar taxing authority as cities. Though we don’t necessarily support the raising of taxes, a county should have the option without going through Richmond, where lawmakers are scared to even mention the topic.

The General Assembly also brushed aside legislation designed to help localities to put off development until schools and roads can be funded to support it. This was among dozens of bills sent to a commission studying reform of the Virginia tax code. Tax reform has been studied for two years with little to show for it.

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