Virginia legislators at odds over Gov. McDonnell’s transportation plan

February 20, 2012

It’s an annual legislative dust-up.

Every year, state lawmakers fight over the maintenance of Virginia’s crumbling roads — with Democrats and Republicans bitterly split on how to pay for the upkeep.

The disagreement has carried over into this year’s legislative session even though the same party controls both chambers. The House has largely endorsed Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s modest plan of diverting money from education and public safety to transportation and selling the naming rights to roads and bridges, but the Senate is pushing a proposal that would raise the gasoline tax at the rate of inflation .

“There’s not enough money to pay for all the needs we have,” Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Chesterfield) said. “We are not going to wish our way out of this problem.”

Some Republican legislators privately say McDonnell (R) planned to back the proposal to raise the gas tax until he learned the more conservative House would not support the increase.

Del. Jackson H. Miller (R-Manassas), the majority whip, said the House plan would begin to allocate money for the top funding issue in his district.

“It’s making sure we are getting more money for transportation,” Miller said. “It’s a fundamental responsibility of government.”

McDonnell has made transportation funding one of his top priorities this year, along with pension reform and higher-education funding. Failing to pass a transportation bill could prove as politically difficult for him as it has been for his predecessors. McDonnell continues his behind-the-scenes campaign for his proposals — at times meeting with individual legislators. The governor declined to say whether he supports indexing the gas tax and gave a muted response when asked about the Senate’s overhaul of his plans.

“I’m going to wait to see what happens,” he told reporters. “We’re early in the process. These transportation proposals have a long way to go.”

Last year, the General Assembly signed off on McDonnell’s plan to borrow nearly $3 billion for construction over three years — the largest infusion of funds into the cash-strapped transportation coffers in more than two decades.

But this year, some legislators in both parties say they have serious reservations about whether McDonnell’s plan, which is estimated to bring in at least $115 million, provides enough money for maintenance and whether it amounts only to a short-term solution to a perpetual problem.

Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) told colleagues on his chamber’s floor last week that the state would soon run out of money for transportation projects.

“We can’t live with this,” Wagner said. “We can’t sustain economic development unless we increase our commitment.”

Democrats have derided McDonnell’s plan for weeks in speeches before the General Assembly and in news conferences. They’ve been most critical of the governor’s plan to divert money to transportation from the general fund, which pays for core services such as education and health care.

“It’s the ultimate patchwork solution,” House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said.

Transportation experts and state officials say Virginia needs more than $1 billion each year to pay for road maintenance and construction. Construction dollars are expected to dry up next year, and the state’s Department of Transportation has declared 27,000 lane miles of secondary roads substandard.

The estimate has led a number of Democrats — and a handful of Republicans — to introduce proposals to increase taxes to raise revenue, including adding one at the gas pump. All have died in the House.

“In short, neither the executive branch or legislative branch are offering anything approaching what the Department of Transportation numbers show is needed,” said Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a business-supported group that lobbies for funding.

Chase predicted that only McDonnell has the influence to bring the warring sides together and forge a compromise between Republicans and Democrats, senators and delegates that would result in a significant revenue increase. But, Chase said, that would probably have to include raising a tax or a fee, which the governor has opposed.

McDonnell unveiled a plan before the 60-day legislative session to increase the portion of the sales tax dedicated to transportation from 0.5 percent to 0.75 percent over the next eight years. He also proposed boosting the percentage of year-end surpluses spent on roads, dedicating the first 1 percent in revenue growth over 5 percent each year to transportation, selling the naming rights to roads and bridges and creating an authority to construct and operate toll road facilities. Both chambers killed his proposal to add tolls.

The governor’s policy staff does not know how much additional money would result from his proposals, but it estimates that the sales tax would bring in more than $110 million over two years and that naming rights could bring in $5 million to $20 million annually. The House estimated the sales tax would bring in $94.6 million.

The Senate scrapped those plans in favor of adjusting the gas tax annually to rise with the rate of inflation on highway construction materials. That increase in Virginia’s 17.5-cent gas tax, which hasn’t risen since 1986, would bring in an additional $123.6 million each year by 2018.

But the House probably won’t go along. Leading anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist wrote senators, accusing them of violating their pledge not to raise taxes.

“For many people in my district, this is a third rail,” Del. Christopher T. Head (R-Roanoke) told his colleagues as he voted against a gas tax increase.

Staff writer Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.

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