RICHMOND — The House and Senate staked out starkly different fixes for Virginia’s transportation funding crisis but were taking the first steps Wednesday night toward hashing out a deal.
Both chambers appointed members to a conference committee that would attempt to bridge the gulf between the competing plans for filling the commonwealth’s nearly depleted transportation coffers.
The Senate passed a funding package that appealed to Democrats and some Republicans but turned off more-conservative members of the GOP. The Senate voted to amend a House bill, itself an amended version of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s proposed funding overhaul. The Senate proposal raises about $900 million a year, considerably more than the Republican governor’s plan if federal legislation he bets on does not come through.
Where the House made changes last week to McDonnell’s bill — it left intact his plan to scrap the gas tax and raise the sales tax but junked his $100 annual fee on hybrids — the Senate went for a wholesale reinvention.
The Senate plan would not only keep the gas tax but also increase it and allow it to rise with inflation. It would increase the tax on the wholesale price of fuel and raise it again if Congress does not come through with a particular piece of legislation, and it would give localities the power to impose local sales tax for transportation projects. It leaves the general sales tax rate alone.
About the only agreement between the two plans were on raising the vehicle registration fees by $15 and on the notion of giving a bigger slice of general-fund revenue, which normally goes to services such as schools and law enforcement, to transportation. Just how large a slice that should be was in dispute. The Senate offered up about $56 million a year by 2018. The House and McDonnell want $283 million a year by then.
The bill passed the evenly divided Senate 26 to 14. All of those opposed were Republicans. The House later rejected the Senate’s amendments, and a conference committee was called.
The House and Senate appointed a total of 10 conferees, most of them from heavily congested Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and the Richmond area. All but two are Republicans, but they include some of the GOP’s most outspoken advocates for greater transportation funding.
The conferees will try to sculpt a plan that can clear two very different chambers and get the governor’s approval. Their biggest challenge could be finding a compromise that the Republican-dominated House can stomach in an election year. Every delegate is up for reelection, which could make some especially wary of raising taxes.
Even though the House and Senate differ, the bill’s emergence from the Senate was hailed as progress on an issue that has vexed the commonwealth for nearly a generation. Just a week ago, Senate Democrats vowed to kill any transportation plan in retaliation for an attempted GOP redistricting coup. They came around after House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) ruled the Republican’s plan out of order.