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Finding Common Ground

Stephanie Meeks, acting President and CEO of the Nature Conservancy was talking about her own organization and its mission in her column entitled “Finding Common Ground” in the Summer 2008 Nature Conservancy magazine. The Conservancy, of course, is focused squarely on protecting habitat that supports endangered species. Its considerable success is driven by volunteer boards in all 50 states, innovative partnerships with public bodies and private interests and growing international links.


But Ms. Meeks could have been giving advice on a range of topics to almost any group of leaders in business, the non-profit sector or government when she commented that the organization’s most important attribute “is a knack for cultivating productive relationships with the range of people and institutions needed to find solutions and advance change.”
As the General Assembly of Virginia prepares itself for yet another special session devoted to transportation funding on June 23, it is difficult to see the relationships among legislators that are productive, not political, and the full range of individuals and institutions — governor, delegates, senators, lobbyists, business groups — that are needed “to find solutions and advance change.” Narrow talking points and ad hominem attacks that dominate media coverage hardly inspire confidence.


Yet, there is no other way to conduct the public business successfully than by finding common ground. Six straight years of failure to find a comprehensive solution to the transportation funding problem that penalizes every Virginian is the exclamation point.


Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, for example, has spent significant parts of the last six weeks traveling to every part of Virginia to hold town hall discussions about transportation needs, current revenue patterns and possible remedies. The needs include billions of dollars of new, urgent investments in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads that could be met with regional plans and a shortfall in dollars for maintenance that keeps sucking construction funds statewide. The revenue patterns are clear. Virginia is below the national average in each of the three main funding streams most states devote to transportation — a tax on gasoline, a piece of the general sales tax and the percentage of sales tax that applies to vehicles.


Many members of the Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia delegations have come together to explore options for their regions. Conversations among Democratic and Republican caucuses continue on potential remedies — increase the sales tax on vehicle sales, add one percent sales tax in the two regions with the largest needs, dedicate 25 cents of the grantor’s tax statewide to transportation, add a one percent sales tax statewide, impose the sales tax on gasoline, raise various fees related to driver and vehicular licenses, etc.


“If we don’t fix transportation now, we will never be able to fix it because we won’t have the resources,” Virginia Beach Republican Del. John Cosgrove warned his colleagues back in May. “You need to take a look at what’s right and what’s important and do your job as a legislator.”


Virginians know transportation is a problem, even where it is not the top priority. Gov. Kaine, for example, finds nodisagreement in any of his audiences that there is a transportation funding problem. He counters patiently and effectively the arguments that there are answers — getting more federal dollars, cutting spending, reprogramming money from other programs, removing inefficiencies from the Virginia Department of Transportation, privatizing transportation facilities — that require no new state revenue dedicated to transportation. These are the old “waste, fraud and abuse” arguments of another century that have little to do with falling gasoline tax collections, $150 a barrel oil, a shrinking federal transportation trust fund and the world’s most mobile population.


The Nature Conservancy’s Meeks suggests that her group always has “relied on being a familiar face that brings together the right people, at the right time and place, to advance our common objectives.” Meeks writes that the real strength of the Conservancy has been to “build the teams and broker the agreements necessary” to move ahead.


Her words also apply to the collective mission and shared responsibility of Virginia officials on transportation funding starting today. And it wouldn’t necessarily be wrong for those leaders to take the advice of one Loudoun County town hall participant, who suggested that legislators be locked up in the Capital until they reach agreement on the comprehensive transportation funding solutions they have dodged for six years. Some business groups already are locking up campaign contributions to any legislator until together as a group lawmakers find common ground.


The time and place are right for a solution. That leaves whether Virginia has “the right people” as the real question left to be answered.

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