RICHMOND, Va. — Gov. Bob McDonnell's transportation funding reform package was drastically rewritten Tuesday in a prickly meeting of the Senate Finance Committee, creating starkly opposing visions for overhauling highway financing system with just a dozen days left to broker a compromise.
While the version of the bill passed by the House of Delegates would have repealed the 17½ cents-per-gallon gasoline tax, the amended version in the Senate would add another nickel on top of it and add a 1 percent statewide wholesale tax on motor fuels.
Unlike the governor's plan, it would forbid tolling on existing Virginia interstate highways without legislative approval. It authorizes local option sales taxes as much as 1 percent that cities and counties could use exclusively for local transportation initiatives.
Sen. Frank Wagner's amended bill would yield an estimated $728 million next year, and slightly more than $1 billion by 2018. It would also allow separately for localities to generate hundreds of millions of their own should they enact the additional sales tax: by 2018, a yearly take of $374 million for northern Virginia; $208 million for Hampton Roads; and $177 million for the Richmond and Petersburg area.
Like the governor's measure, it increases the small share of the existing statewide retail sales tax that would be dedicated to transportation and increases vehicle registration fees. It also designates a share of sales taxes that may one day be collected from online and catalog sales if Congress passes legislation authorizing it.
Transportation funding reform is a centerpiece of Gov. Bob McDonnell's 2013 legislative package that represents his last chance for a lasting policy legacy before his single, non-renewable four-year term ends in 11 months.
Soaring costs of maintaining Virginia's deteriorating roads and bridges are rapidly gobbling up state funds that otherwise would go to new highway construction. Simultaneously, Virginia's 27-year-old volume-based gasoline tax is generating less revenue because of greater automotive fuel efficiency and a reduction in discretionary driving as pump prices climb.
Del. S. Chris Jones never got to fully present McDonnell's transportation bill Tuesday. Instead, he was caught up in an intraparty feud between the General Assembly's top two Republicans: House Speaker Bill Howell, who is sponsoring McDonnell's bill, and Senate Republican Leader Thomas K. Norment, R-James City County. As Jones began addressing the committee, Norment demanded that Howell present his own bill.
"I am speaking on behalf of ... the House. This is the governor's bill. The speaker put it in at the request of the governor," said Jones, R-Suffolk. He argued that he was the proper delegate to address the bill because proxies routinely present bills when the named sponsor is unavailable. "I'm very aware of what's in this bill."
Jones noted that Tuesday was the final day for committees to act on revenue bills, and that delaying action on the only surviving transportation legislation would kill hopes of enacting new sources of money for highway maintenance funding.
The speaker peeved Norment last week with a ruling against a Senate Republican effort to abruptly and drastically redraw all 40 state Senate districts to benefit GOP senators. Howell, Virginia's most powerful legislator, ruled that the amendment to a House bill that had made minor and routine corrections to a handful of House districts was not germane, or relevant, to the legislation's original purpose. That killed the amendment and thwarted the surprise reapportionment bid by Norment and 19 other Republicans in Virginia's evenly divided Senate.
Howell never appeared, and a jittery committee chose instead to have Wagner explain his amendment to Howell's bill, but not until Norment had scolded Jones for what he called a "demagoguery lecture."
"You don't need to go home and tell your constituents any more than I do that we did not act. We are going to act. You may not like how we're going to act, but we will act," Norment said.
"We can go back and forth about demagoguery, but the facts are the facts," Jones shot back.
McDonnell wasn't happy with the amendments, but at least took comfort that a transportation reform bill remains alive with an opportunity to reach an accord before the scheduled Feb. 23 adjournment.
"The Senate bill uses far too little in general funds, which is an essential part of a solution. I remain convinced that the gas tax is a declining revenue source and therefore we must look for new ways to meet our growing transportation needs. The Senate bill, though, will raise gas taxes and gas prices for the consumer," McDonnell said.
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