Governor’s road plan hit from opposite sides
BY CHELYEN DAVIS
RICHMOND—Virginia Senate Democrats said Tuesday that they oppose Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation plan and will propose one of their own.
At a news conference to outline Senate Democrats’ agenda for the session, Sen. Dick Saslaw said he’ll propose raising the 17.5-cent gas tax by 10 cents over two years, then index it so that it rises with inflation. He also wants to raise the state sales tax 1 percent, splitting the additional revenue between transportation and education.
The Senate minority leader from Fairfax said Democrats dislike McDonnell’s transportation plan’s use of general fund money, and he doubts that McDonnell’s proposed elimination of the state gas tax would result in lower gas prices in the long term.
“You wouldn’t be saving Virginians anything,” said Saslaw, who has owned gas stations. He said market forces determine gas prices and that while Virginia’s prices might drop 17.5 cents per gallon right after the tax was repealed, they’d creep back up.
McDonnell’s plan would eliminate the gas tax, raise the sales tax and use some general fund money for transportation. It would also raise some fees.
It was crafted that way in part to give all the factions in the legislature something to like—or hate—about the bill.
Saslaw said his bill’s appeal is that it retains the gas tax, which many view as a direct user fee on those who use the transportation system and is also paid by out-of-state drivers.
“I’m not nickel-and-diming people and I’m not dumping the entirety of our highway costs on the citizens of Virginia,” he said. “What I’m doing is clean. No gimmicks.”
Meanwhile, the conservative caucus didn’t sound too fond of McDonnell’s bill, either. In a news conference Tuesday, members of that group said they’re leery of proposals to raise the sales tax and some vehicle registration fees.
Del. Ben Cline, R–Rockbridge, said he wants a transportation bill to be “revenue neutral” and include a provision locking up the Transportation Trust Fund from being used for other purposes.
“Conservatives want to see taxes kept low [and] make sure working families aren’t subjected to excessive fee hikes,” Cline said.
Sen. Mark Obenshain, R–Harrisonburg, said he wanted the state to use end-of-year surpluses in past years for transportation. Not doing so was “a huge missed opportunity,” he said.
Like Saslaw, he suggested that McDonnell’s plan shifts too much of the cost for transportation onto Virginia residents.
Both the Senate Democrats and the conservatives called their news conferences Tuesday not just to talk about transportation but to outline their broader agendas.
Beside Saslaw’s transportation bill, Senate Democrats said they’re pushing for a 3 percent teacher pay raise, more than the 2 percent McDonnell proposed and without the strings he attached to passage of his teacher evaluation bill.
Democrats are also advocating a “Dream Act” to let undocumented immigrants attend Virginia colleges and pay in-state tuition if they graduated from high school and meet other requirements.
They also want the state to agree to expand Medicaid eligibility under the federal Affordable Care Act. Sen. Barbara Favola, D–Arlington, said doing so could create 33,000 jobs.
The conservative caucus wants a law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls.
Del. Rob Bell, R–Albemarle, wants to require a citizenship check when someone registers to vote.
The caucus has endorsed several bills requiring welfare recipients to be drug-tested, or at least assessed for potential drug use. Bell’s bill on that issue would apply only to people who receive cash benefits through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program.
Chelyen Davis: 804/343-2245