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Once again, General Assembly debates how to fund transportation needs

BY CHELYEN DAVIS

RICHMOND—If all you read was the governor’s press releases, you might think passage of his transportation funding bill was a fait accompli.

Gov. Bob McDonnell’s press office has been busy churning out announcements every time some business or transportation group gets behind the bill. But in the halls of the General Assembly, among the people who will actually vote on the bill, strong support is harder to find. In fact, if the governor’s proposal were up for a vote today, it probably would not have the votes to pass.

That’s not to say that legislators aren’t willing to talk about it, or work toward passing legislation that would increase transportation money—somehow. But they’re not ready to coalesce behind McDonnell’s specific proposals, preferring to call his plan a good starting point rather than a done deal.

McDonnell’s bill eliminates the state’s 17.5-cent gas tax, replaces it by raising the statewide sales tax, shifts a portion of general fund revenue to transportation and increases fees for vehicle registration and for alternative-fuel vehicles.

That’s enough moving pieces to anger just about every faction in the General Assembly. Conservatives don’t like the tax increase. Democrats don’t like taking money from the general fund, which also pays for education, public safety and other programs.

Some Republicans don’t like the idea of getting rid of the gas tax, which they call a “user fee” and which is more likely than the sales tax to be paid by out-of-state drivers. They’re joined by some Democrats who don’t want poor people who rely on public transportation to pay for roads they don’t use every time they buy something.

McDonnell’s hope when he proposed the plan was that it had something to please and displease everyone, which is how a legislature defines “compromise.”

“The beauty of this plan is that nobody loves it, and nobody hates it,” said Del. Brenda Pogge, R–Yorktown, in a floor speech praising McDonnell’s plan.

But just about everybody plans on changing it in some way.

LOTS OF BILLS TO CONSIDER

Some lawmakers say they shouldn’t get rid of the gas tax entirely, but instead apply the sales tax to gasoline. Many don’t like McDonnell’s proposed vehicle fee increases.

Some have filed transportation funding bills of their own—27 total, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, although most are not the full-scale overhaul that McDonnell proposes.

One that is comes from Sen. John Watkins, R–Powhatan, who would make the gas tax a percentage tax, lower the income tax and eliminate some tax credits.

Del. David Albo, R–Springfield, has one that levies a corporate income tax on out-of-state corporations that do some business in Virginia, shifts the gas tax to a sales tax, lowers the income tax rates and lets congested Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads raise additional revenues that would stay in their own regions for transportation.

A variety of bills would raise the gas tax, or make it a percentage tax in some way.

Albo said it’s not that he doesn’t like McDonnell’s plan. He thinks it’s smart and rightly appeals to different factions. But, Albo said, the tax cut in McDonnell’s plan—eliminating the gas tax altogether—isn’t a guaranteed savings for consumers because market forces drive the price of gas.

He likened the process to making a pizza—he wants as many ingredients as possible on the table. The deadline to file bills was Friday, so now any legislator who wanted to file a transportation bill has done so. All the ingredients are out, Albo said, and lawmakers can start choosing what they want on their pizza.

THE BIPARTISAN DIVIDE

McDonnell can’t file bills himself, so in the House, his plan is under House Speaker Bill Howell’s name, and Del. Tim Hugo’s. In the Senate, it’s Sen. Steve Newman, with help from Sen. Jeff McWaters and Stafford’s own Sen. Richard Stuart.

Stuart said he signed on because transportation is such a critical issue in his district, where many people commute.

“There’s a lot about this bill that I don’t necessarily like or agree with,” Stuart said. “[But] it’s incumbent upon us to find some consensus that will pass the General Assembly this year. We don’t have any time left to do it.”

The reason for the rush—after years of lawmakers squabbling about transportation funding but doing little about it—is that in just a few years, the maintenance budget for the state’s existing roads and bridges will be eating up all of the available money that might otherwise have gone to construction of new roads.

Del. Hugo, R–Fairfax, said Democrats, who have criticized McDonnell’s bill in floor speeches, should consider how many transportation bills have failed in past years.

“This is the right bill, but it’s also the right time,” Hugo said. “If you don’t get a bill this year tell me when you’re going to get it. Tell me how many more years you’re going to wait.”

Until they can get a bill that doesn’t touch general fund money, say Democrats. Democrats in the House and Senate both have said that part of McDonnell’s plan won’t get past them. In the House, where Democrats are well outnumbered, such vows may not mean much, but the Senate’s partisan split is 20–20. It’s likely a transportation bill won’t pass there without a couple of Democrats.

But using some general fund money for transportation is also the only way McDonnell can get some Republicans to vote for tax increases. Del. Mark Dudenhefer, R–Stafford, is one of them.

He said he hasn’t really decided whether to support the bill, but that he certainly isn’t going to vote for raising a tax unless the bill is comprehensive and requires others to go out on a limb, as well.

“It’s got to come as a package,” Dudenhefer said. “My Democratic friends have to give up something, too.”

FIGHT OVER GAS TAX

One thorny question within the debate will be over the gas tax, and it’s a question that knows no party lines.

Some Democrats and Republicans both have said they don’t think the state should just eliminate its gas tax entirely. They point out that other states get by just fine with a gas tax, and that Virginia’s problem isn’t so much the increasing fuel efficiency and alternative-fuel vehicles.

The problem, that camp says, is that Virginia hasn’t raised its gas tax in all those years, so it’s worth about half what it was in 1986. Drivers here paid 17.5 cents a gallon more than 25 years ago, and they still do today.

“It’s just basic economics,” said Sen. Dick Saslaw, D–Fairfax. “Every other state raised their gas tax except Virginia. Well, duh.”

That group advocates shifting to a percentage tax—like a sales tax on gas, or indexing the cents-per-gallon tax—so that revenues will rise with prices or the economy.

But others—Howell and Hugo among them, along with McDonnell—say that won’t fly. They believe the gas tax as a revenue-generator is a dinosaur, thanks to increasing car mileage standards and a wider availability of alternative-fuel vehicles, and that it’s time for its extinction.

“The gas tax as a funding source is a dying proposition,” Hugo said. “I think it’s very important to move away from the gasoline tax” and on to something more sustainable, Howell said.

That suggests that if the Senate moves the bill to a sales tax on gasoline—as some senators would like—that it could encounter problems in the House.

Like the Highlander, there can be only one transportation funding bill. It’s likely to be a version of McDonnell’s, but it will probably also take all session for legislators to work out a compromise that can satisfy the governor and a majority of both houses.

Hugo warned his colleagues in the House that they could easily nitpick the bill to death.

“You can pick the bill apart on various things,” Hugo said. “Do not let the perfect be the mortal enemy of the good.”

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028

cdavis@freelancestar.com

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