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Roanoke Free Press
Thursday, January 24, 2013

Another General Assembly session invites national attention

Mayor Bowers bellows "all aboard."

Mayor Bowers bellows “all aboard.”

Comedy Central’s Colbert Report made satire out of the Republican’s sneak Virginia Senate redistricting coup Monday. Colbert humorously pounced on the Senate Republicans who waited until Senator Henry Marsh, a Democratic legislator and civil rights lawyer was in Washington, D.C. celebrating inauguration day on what was also a MLK Jr. holiday. The Rachel Maddow show was on it as well. (See video below).

The bill (HB 259) in its original form only make slight corrective adjustments to district lines. Senator John C. Watkins introduced a well crafted amendment that blindsided the Senate Democrats who knew they were down one member in the evenly divided Senate.

This year’s  session was expected to be low key after the national media took notice of last year’s trans-vaginal ultrasound bill. It is said to have cost Republican Governor Bob McDonnell the Vice Presidential slot on Mitt Romney’s ticket.

The expectation of a quiet 2013 General Assembly session lasted about a week. The session  is said to be poisoned with ill feelings. McDonnell’s transportation and education plans may have been thwarted by Senate Republicans who didn’t get the message last session when Virginia was nationally embarrassed by the ultrasound bill.

NS_WebMcDonnell was expected to make a personal appearance this morning to push his transportation package but his airplane was grounded due to high winds. He spoke over a cell phone and PA system.

His transportation package eliminates the 17.5 cent gas tax and increases the sales tax to 5.8%. The .8% increase to be dedicated into a transportation lock box. It also dips further into the General Fund. Democrats complain that it takes funds away from education and public safety.

McDonnell appealed to Roanoke’s yearning for the extension of Amtrak train service to Roanoke. He promised at least $100 million for duel tracks that were estimated at at one time to cost $140 million. Norfolk Southern’s one existing heavily used freight track can’t be shared with a passenger train. “Putting the double track back is very expensive,” said Bev Fitzpatrick, the Virginia Museum of Transportation Executive Director.

DignitariesWFitzpatrick said “the numbers [of riders] are huge between Roanoke and Lynchburg.” A larger bus holding up to 54 people had to be put into service to accommodate the ever increasing ridership to Lynchburg to catch the train. Another bus will be added if there is funding.

Norfolk Southern is already adjusting train tracks and investing in the passenger train station near the museum.

McDonnell stressed repeatedly during the call the need for bipartisanship. Almost to the point of being audible crowd think it was more of what he didn’t say. In the end he couldn’t avoid questions on whether he thought the Senate redistricting coup would derail his transportation plan. Senate Democrats have threatened retaliation for jeopardizing their secure Senate seats. The Democrats were asleep at the wheel. They failed to see the red flag as the bill was “passed by for the day” until Senator Marsh was absent.

On the conundrum McDonnell said, “Anything to sidetrack [transportation] is not helpful.. I’m doing everything to keep the focus on this.” He reiterated Monday’s disapproval saying “it wasn’t how business was to be done here.” He was confident that when it comes down to a major vote on better schools or rail legislators will focus solely on the issues and not on the other “extraneous issues.”

 Train_webMcDonnell said that the Senate Democrats shouldn’t let their disappointment over some other bill get in the way of doing the right thing.

McDonnell will wait for the redistricting bill to hit his desk before making a decision. It was clear he had no plans to signal a veto of the bill that could alleviate the tension in the Senate. He was not confident that he had the votes to pass his transportation package. It depends on the voice of the citizens – This is not a Republican or Democrat issue said McDonnell. “This is not at all a done deal.”

He asked Virginians to “Let your legislators hear from you especially Senator [Ralph] Smith and Senator [John] Edwards. Both are good people and interested in passenger rail service to Roanoke.”

Mayor Bowers, a Democrat, took the podium eulogizing passenger train service. Later he said he thought “the Governor’s advice to the Republicans in Richmond was sound. In a polite gubernatorial way I heard him say that now is not the time to do these other political shenanigans – now is the time to concentrate of the transportation initiative.”

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