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Senate votes down governor’s proposal

BY CHELYEN DAVIS / THE FREE LANCE-STAR

RICHMOND—Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation plan failed to get enough support to pass in the Senate Tuesday, putting the chances of road funding reform this session in serious doubt.

The House narrowly passed its own version of the bill, meaning the issue is still alive. But with three weeks left in the session, it’s unclear how legislators can craft a bill to appease both Senate Democrats—who don’t think the tax increases proposed by Republicans raise enough money—and Republicans, who are leery of any tax increase.

The Senate shot down two proposed substitutes to McDonnell’s bill, both of which would have applied a sales tax to gas instead of the existing cents-per-gallon tax. It then sent McDonnell’s bill back to committee, rather than take a roll-call vote on it.

Both substitutes were efforts to keep the gas tax as a user fee—many lawmakers disliked removing the tax on gas entirely, as McDonnell proposed.

Sen. Frank Wagner’s amendment—which would have, among other things, put an 8 percent sales tax on gas—also eliminated the use of general fund money for transportation, a proposal Democrats hated.

But Democrats said it still didn’t generate enough money to fully pay for road needs, which infuriated Wagner into an impassioned floor speech, complaining that Democrats hadn’t submitted floor amendments to make the bill more to their liking.

“I had hoped for and expected a debate, competing ideas in a 20–20 Senate. And what I find is, this isn’t good enough,” said Wagner, R–Virginia Beach. “I’m sorry, it’s a billion dollars. If you want more, put a floor amendment on it. Pass this and put a floor amendment on it. I’ll stay here till the sun comes over I’m here tonight to get a transportation bill passed. Not to set up a campaign for somebody else. Not to do that. I don’t want to hear it. This is the bill, this is the time, let’s take the vote.”

Wagner’s proposal got only seven votes.

While all Democrats voted against both amendments, two Republicans—Sen. Emmett Hanger and Sen. John Watkins—also voted against one from Sen. Steve Newman.

McDonnell, though, blamed Democrats.

“Rather than engaging in a debate on how to move forward with tackling our transportation problems, it is apparent that the Senate Democrats, led by Minority Leader Richard Saslaw, are once again content to risk our continued economic prosperity and our citizens’ quality of life,” McDonnell said in a statement. “Their partisan, lock-step opposition to fixing transportation is incredibly disappointing.”

Democrats said they were voting to defend the general fund, which pays for programs like education, public safety and health care, from being used in greater quantities for transportation.

They also said they wanted a bill that generated more money.

“All this bill will do is stop the bleeding in the maintenance fund, but it does nothing to help out transportation systems,” said Saslaw, D–Fairfax. “Quite frankly I’m beginning to think this whole thing isn’t ready for prime time.”

Sen. Richard Stuart, R–Stafford, had been heavily involved in the Senate version of McDonnell’s bill and an effort to amend it Tuesday to put a sales tax on gas.

He said he was disappointed that it fell three votes short of the 21 needed for passage.

On the Senate floor, Stuart said something must be done to ease the choking of Northern Virginia’s roads.

“This issue is killing Northern Virginia. And I represent a part of it,” Stuart said. “And I’m willing to do whatever we need to do to get this ball rolling in the right direction We have to have a bill that passes both chambers, whether you like that or not.”

McDonnell’s bill, slightly amended, passed the House Tuesday morning.

The House’s vote was close—53 to 46—and it was the support of a handful of Democrats that pushed it over the top.

A few supported the bill because amendments attached Monday night specifically bar tolling on I–95 south of Fredericksburg.

Others said they just want to move a transportation bill forward.

“It’s time for us not to be like Washington,” said Del. Luke Torian,

D-Dumfries. “We become like Washington when a critical bill like this comes before us and we do nothing and we bicker.”

In the Senate, Republicans said the General Assembly is closer than it has been in years to passing additional transportation money—but not close enough.

“We’ve got to solve this problem. In about three years we’re running out of money,” said Sen. John Watkins, R–Powhatan. “We’re ignoring the problem. We can’t keep going in the direction that we are going. We have got to address this problem of transportation. The economic well-being of this state is at risk.”

Sen. Don McEachin, D–Henrico, told reporters that Democrats would like to get a bill passed—and also said that the Senate Republican redistricting effort, which surprised and angered Democrats, affected the transportation vote “not at all.”

“There is an endgame,” McEachin said, involving Democrats at the table with the governor and Republicans to craft a bill.

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028

cdavis@freelancestar.com

 

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