Virginia transportation deal shows virtues of compromise

Robert McCartney
Columnist February 23, 2013

The Virginia road tax deal approved here Saturday is absurdly complicated and riddled with shortcomings. Gov. Bob McDonnell is breaking a major campaign promise by supporting it. It still doesn’t raise enough money to end the nightmarish traffic jams that torment Northern Virginia.

I applaud it anyway, wholeheartedly.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

I cheer first because the agreement delivers lots of fresh funds — well over $1 billion a year by 2018 — for road improvements and transit. It will pay for new ramps, turn lanes and repaving that will help relieve congestion, even if it falls short of actually solving the problem. It will help fund Metro and hold down tolls on the Dulles Toll Road.

Without this accord, transportation bankruptcy threatens to choke the state’s economic development, especially in the Washington region.

In addition, I hail the bipartisan deal as a timely, needed example of how government can succeed when politicians are willing to compromise and do things they swore they never would.

As legislators of both parties emphasized, it represents the kind of painful trade-offs that politicians in Washington ought to copy for the sake of the common good.

“This is the difference between Richmond and Washington. In Virginia, we work together and solve our problems,” said House Speaker Bill Howell (R-Stafford), one of the deal’s key architects.

McDonnell will naturally be the one who gets credit in the history books, because that’s a privilege of being governor. He deserves some of it, especially for pushing hard for a deal in a year when the House of Delegates is up for reelection and legislators are wary of taking risks.

But a lot of other people played major roles. The deal was struck only because of political sacrifices and arm-twisting by leaders and negotiators from both parties, including four from Fairfax: Dels. Dave Albo (R) and Vivian Watts (D) and Sens. Dick Saslaw (D) and Janet Howell (D).

The end result was needlessly intricate because McDonnell and other Republicans started out trying to pretend they weren’t raising taxes.

To foster that fiction, the gasoline tax was reduced somewhat and shifted from the retail to wholesale level. But a whole slew of other taxes and fees were raised, particularly the sales tax. The net result was one of the biggest overall tax increases in Virginia history.

A substantial part of the GOP had to set aside years of anti-tax orthodoxy to embrace the accord. The anguish was captured in a statement on the House floor Friday by Loudoun Del. Tag Greason (R).

“What I thought I was going to do [in the legislature] was make sure that I never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever raised taxes, because there are a few people back home who sent me here to do that,” Greason said. “But as I think about where we are today, and the 27 years we’ve been working on this problem, I think to myself that I was also sent here to solve problems.”

McDonnell had to backtrack from a central position of his 2009 campaign, when he said he’d veto higher taxes for transportation if the General Assembly proposed them. His reward will be a landmark legacy as the first governor in more than two decades to deliver major funding for roads and transit.

Democrats had to hold their noses, too. In particular, they agreed to let a substantial amount of existing revenue be diverted to transportation from general-purpose funds that could otherwise go to education. That met a long-standing demand of the GOP.

The diversion troubled House Minority Leader David Toscano (D-Charlottesville), who said, “I’m not sure I can ever support that concept.” But he went on: “In order to get a compromise, that is worth embracing.”

Democrats also winced to see the gasoline tax reduced. They would have preferred to raise it, partly to encourage clean air. They hated the new $100 fee slapped on purchases of hybrid vehicles that use less gasoline.

Practically speaking, though, it would have been hard for Democrats as a whole to block a major infusion of new revenue for roads. Most of the party’s legislators represent heavily congested areas in Northern Virginia or Hampton Roads.

The Republicans had the heavier lift. McDonnell, Speaker Howell and their allies led the party over several weeks to the realization that the government just didn’t have enough money in its coffers to do what was needed for roads and transit.

Other influential GOP leaders took a different view. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the party’s presumptive nominee for governor in November, denounced the package as a massive tax increase that he couldn’t support.

So don’t expect a renaissance of bipartisan cooperation in Richmond. Just enjoy this moment while we can.

For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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