“It’s a bunch of gymnastics to try to say you’re not raising taxes,” Surovell said. “Beyond that, decoupling road funding from road usage is a pretty radical idea, and it unfairly punishes people who are not even driving on roads.”
As the General Assembly hit the halfway mark of a 45-day session Tuesday, several other measures were put to rest for good this year, including a bid to open parts of Southside Virginia to uranium mining. But the General Assembly also put Virginia on a track to regulate drones, study whether to mint its own currency and prohibit adults from smoking in a car when children are present.
Among the governor’s initiatives, lawmakers appeared most receptive to those aimed at education. McDonnell won approval for new measures that would tighten the accountability of teachers, simplify school ratings by moving to a system of letter grades, and create a new statewide entity with wide-ranging powers to run failing schools.
The bills went through the House with little trouble. In the Senate, Bolling — who irritated fellow Republicans by siding with Democrats who wanted to delay implementing new voter-ID laws — rejoined the GOP fold Tuesday to cast tie-breaking votes on grading schools and establishing the Opportunity Educational Institution to assume control over any school that fails to receive accreditation two years in a row.
True to their word, GOP leadership also steered clear of many of the controversial social issues that overshadowed last year’s session. Measures on abortion and contraceptives failed to advance this year, including several that would have provided that group insurance plans need not cover contraception or abortion-inducing drugs. Democrats tried unsuccessfully to pass a bill that would undo a law enacted last year that that required women to undergo an ultrasound before an abortion.
GOP leadership was also cool to new gun rights legislation. After the murder of 20 children at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., put guns at the center of national debate, Democrats tried to pass several gun-control measures, such as a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. None survived, including a compromise for voluntary background checks at gun shows.
The session also has found the governor struggling to keep members of his party in line. The Republican maneuver to redraw the state’s election districts came as much of a surprise to him, he said, as it did to Democrats. McDonnell also objected to a GOP-led plan to distribute electoral-college votes proportionally in presidential elections, saying such a plan would reduce Virginia’s clout. It died in committee.
Despite McDonnell’s assertion that the transportation package was revenue-neutral, some Democrats and some Republicans found themselves agreeing that the package represented a tax hike. Democrats said they did not like it because it was the wrong kind of tax; Republicans did not want any kind of additional taxes.
“It’s because we want smaller government,” said James Parmelee, president of Republicans United for Tax Relief. “We want to spend the revenue we have more wisely.”
Democrats objected to using general-fund revenue on roads that might otherwise go to public safety, education and other programs. Several said the plan also generated too little money for the state’s needs, with even some Republicans from Northern Virginia complaining that the state’s most populous region already receives far less than it sends to Richmond in sales and income taxes and that the imbalance would probably worsen.
“If all we have is sales tax from the Internet sales tax and diversion from the general fund, that bill doesn’t fly,” said House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville). “And that’s a lot of what we have right now.”