Soon after McDonnell wrote a blistering letter about his reluctance to expand the shared federal and state program because of growing costs, Democratic senators threatened to derail the $3.5 billion transportation measure unless McDonnell agreed, in writing, to honor their compromise on Medicaid.
He did, and despite a last-minute challenge Saturday from Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, the Medicaid deal held together well enough for the Senate to take up the historic transportation measure a day after the House passed it.
“This isn’t any bill, this is the only bill, and we did not reach this decision lightly without hundreds of hours of anguish and numbers-crunching,” said Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), one of the transportation plan’s final negotiators. “It is the only solution we could come up with.”
The trick in Virginia has been to convince a public that dislikes taxes almost as much as it dislikes traffic jams that the way forward requires new revenue. The new plan would do so by replacing the 17.5 cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline — which had not been changed since 1987 — with a new 3.5 percent wholesale tax on motor fuels that will keep pace with economic growth and inflation. Supporters say the average motorist could pay as much $15 more a month.
The deal’s major components also include boosting the sales tax on nonfood merchandise from 5 percent to 5.3 percent and devoting a fatter slice of existing revenue to transportation instead of schools, public safety and other services. And it creates a regional funding mechanism that boosts the sales tax to 6 percent in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads and requires those funds to be spent only on transportation projects in those areas.
To win passage, Republicans had to swallow their aversion to raising taxes, and Democrats had to accept diverting as much as $200 million a year in general fund revenue toward roads instead of schools or other services.
Supporters praised the plan to raise about $880 million a year, including the new dedicated streams of money for mass transit, while opponents spoke out against taxing different parts of the state at different rates or doubling the registration fee on electric cars to $100 and applying it to alternative fuel and hybrid vehicles, too.
“Why are we moving backwards on a deal that hurts nondrivers?” Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) wondered.