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Transportation reform bill passes

RICHMOND—The General Assembly ended a tumultuous 2013 session on Saturday with passage of the first transportation funding reform in a quarter-century and budget language that gives authority over Medicaid expansion to legislators.

Both were in doubt Saturday morning as Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli issued an opinion that said a Medicaid deal struck by budget negotiators could be unconstitutional.

But by afternoon, lawmakers had worked out different language they thought could pass legal muster, and Senate Democrats—who had conditioned their support for transportation on the Medicaid expansion language—let a vote on transportation go forward.

The transportation bill—passed 25–15 in the Senate on Saturday and 60-40 Friday by the House—is a major victory for Gov. Bob McDonnell, who made transportation reform a top priority in his last session as governor.

The bill as passed is a compromise between the elimination of the gas tax McDonnell initially proposed and higher gas taxes.

McDonnell backed the deal, though. He said Saturday night that it creates “a long-term fix to transportation for the foreseeable future.”

It eliminates the state’s 17.5 cents-per-gallon gas tax, applies a 3.5 percent wholesale tax to gas and a 6 percent tax to diesel, raises the state sales tax to 5.3 percent and contains additional taxes for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

It also has language barring tolls on I–95 without General Assembly approval.

Senate supporters said it wasn’t “a perfect bill,” but that it should help ease congestion and improve the economy in the two economic-engine regions of the state, Northern Virginia and Tidewater.

“This is truly the best we’re going to be able to get,” said Sen. Janet Howell, D–Fairfax. “If we vote for this, I think the quality of life for all Virginians will improve and the business climate will improve.”

Sen. Charles Carrico, R–Grayson, said that while he’s one of the more conservative members of the Senate, he would vote for the bill for the same reason Del. Terry Kilgore gave on Friday—to protect Virginia’s rural regions from changes to the state transportation funding formulas that urban lawmakers have been pushing for years.

That, though, is exactly why Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, said he couldn’t vote for it.

Without changing the Commonwealth Transportation Board representation, Ebbin said, “Northern Virginians will continue to be represented with only the voting rights equivalent to one-third of our population.”

Other senators said they couldn’t support the bill’s mish-mash of tax rates and its $100 fee on alternative-fuel vehicles.

“I’ve read it, all 109 pages two times over, and while I want to vote for it I can’t bring myself to do it,” said Sen. Chap Petersen, D–Fairfax. “I think this bill is overly complicated at times it’s contradictory. I don’t agree with having different tax rates in different parts of the commonwealth.”

In the Fredericksburg region, most senators voted against the bill. Sens. Richard Stuart, Bryce Reeves, Tom Garrett and Jill Vogel were all no votes. Sen. Toddy Puller, a Democrat whose Fairfax district has a slice of Stafford, voted yes. Stuart said his district covers part of Prince William County, which is considered Northern Virginia for for the regional package in the bill. That means the sales tax will go to 6 percent, and taxes on hotel occupancy and home sales will also go up for that region. Stuart said many constituents asked that he vote against the constituents asked him to vote in favor of the bill, but many asked him to vote against it.

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028