Virginia Democrats want more on transportation plan
By Errin Haines,
RICHMOND — House Democrats, saying that Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s transportation plan doesn’t go far enough to address Virginia’s infrastructure needs, said Monday they would work with Republicans in an effort to come up with a bill that can ease some of the most congested highways in the country.
The House Democratic Caucus said the governor’s plan focuses too heavily on road maintenance. Members of the group said they would support an approach drawn from members of both parties and would need to generate at least $1 billion in new revenue. Democrats also are calling for a 5 percent wholesale gas tax and allowing urban areas to raise their own transportation funds.
Earlier this month, McDonnell proposed eliminating the gas tax and increasing the state sales tax from 5 percent to 5.8 percent, a move that he said would raise an estimated $3.1 billion over five years to pay for road, transit and rail projects in the commonwealth.
McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said the administration welcomed House Democrats to the conversation, but he was critical of their ideas.
“This is just another demonstration that lawmakers from both parties understand this is the session to fix Virginia’s transportation system,” Martin said, calling that consensus “a critically important step forward.”
“While we disagree with the Democrats’ call for a billion-dollar tax hike, we are pleased to see them engaged on this issue,” Martin said.
Democrats may also get pushback on transportation from within their party.
“Our number’s much higher than what the House Democrats are proposing,” said Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington), chairman of the Progressive Caucus. The group estimated the new transportation revenue needed annually at closer to $4 billion a year.
“We don’t disagree with what House Democrats have proposed, but we are concerned that they don’t even go far enough,” Hope said. “We don’t want to go [into] this by saying we’re going to try and solve the problem and only be back here in the next four or five years.”
Time for action on a plan is running short, with the 2013 General Assembly nearly halfway through its term. The stakes are particularly high for McDonnell (R), who is in his last year in office and cannot run for re-election.
The governor is still seeking buy-in from lawmakers on his proposals. Supporters say it’s time to compromise. Critics, however, contend that McDonnell’s plan to eliminate the gas tax puts more of the burden for transportation funding reform on Virginia taxpayers rather than on all of the people using state roads.
Both the House and Senate versions of McDonnell’s plan are headed to committee later this week.
House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said Democrats want to incorporate parts of McDonnell’s plan. He also weighed in on the effect of last week’s divisive and partisan redistricting fight on transportation talks.
“We’re hoping that bill is going to be dispatched with in the House and we won’t have to worry about it anymore,” Toscano said. “Suffice it to say we’re looking forward to trying to work together to get something done.”
But House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said he did not see the gas tax for wholesalers as “a real, long-term solution.”
“It’s a Band-Aid that we’ll have to come back and fix again eventually,” said Howell, who sponsored the House version of the governor’s transportation proposal. “Governor McDonnell has come up with a new and innovative approach that solves the problem both short and long term.”