WASHINGTON - The Virginia General Assembly late Wednesday passed a $1.4 billion bond package for construction projects for the state's colleges, parks, and mental health facilities.

About $1.02 billion of the bonds are to be issued by the Virginia College Building Authority for higher education projects, and the remaining $437.7 million will be issued by the Virginia Public Building Authority for parks and mental health facilities. The two authorities will use bond proceeds to finance 75 projects.

None of the bonds must be approved by voters because the funds are appropriated to the agencies by the General Assembly.

"I am particularly pleased with the Assembly's approval of our higher education bond package, which makes a record investment in Virginia's higher education institutions," Gov. Tim Kaine said in a press release. "The bond package also includes much-needed money to improve open space and expand the state park system. These improvements are essential to our citizens' well-being and to our environment." Kaine is expected to approve the bond package soon.

Jody M. Wagner, Virginia's finance director, said Department of Finance officials are "very pleased" with the package. "It's really landmark legislation that will change the way Virginia plans and builds projects in the future," she said.

The last time lawmakers approved an education bond package was in 2002 when it signed off on $846 million of bonds, fewer than the $1.4 billion approved this week.

The agencies have the authorization to issue the bonds as soon as Kaine signs off on the package.

"A lot of the bonding will be done through the Virginia College Building Authority," Wagner said. "We certainly won't issue it all right away, but it will be authorized to be issued. We'll issue it as needed."

The bond package was approved in a special session Wednesday, during which lawmakers voted on Kaine's amendments to a $77 billion biennium budget they passed in mid-March.

The governor's initial bond package consisted of $1.53 billion of general obligation bonds, with the remaining $126.5 million to be issued by the VCBA. Voters would have had to approve the GO bonds. The Senate had wanted to authorize $2.6 billion of bonds, but the House voted for only $1.8 billion, with some Republicans saying the state should not borrow in excess during a possible recession.

While lawmakers came together to approve the billion-dollar-plus bond package this week, they still must resolve the state's massive transportation funding needs.

Following a Feb. 29 state Supreme Court ruling that found it unconstitutional for the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority - an agency created by the General Assembly - to levy the taxes and fees that would be needed to back $130 million of bonds that were to be issued, lawmakers have not agreed on a way to come up with the funding.

The court said that because the members of the NVTA were not elected to the board by the public, it could not issue debt. The authority had prepared an initial issuance of $102 million, but the bond issue has since been canceled. NVTA officials had expected to raise $300 million a year of taxes and fees.

Some Democratic lawmakers floated a statewide gas tax as a remedy, but Republicans opposed that measure, instead pushing local governments in northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to vote to impose new taxes.

While Wagner said she is unsure when the governor will call a special session to work on a transportation funding agreement, Kaine addressed the issue in his statement on the bond package.

"In the coming weeks, I will be meeting with legislators and stakeholders about much-needed funding for transportation," Kaine said. "I will call the legislature back into special session in the coming months to approve a transportation funding package that will move Virginia forward."

 

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