Va. Senate Democrats Looking for Revenue
Friday, January 11, 2008
RICHMOND, Jan. 10 -- Senate Democrats said Thursday that they might push for a tax or fee increase to raise additional money for transportation, reopening a debate that many thought was resolved when the General Assembly approved a landmark deal last year.
All 21 Senate Democrats stood together to call for additional money for transportation, saying that last year's $1.1 billion compromise did not go far enough.
Democrats want more money to close an estimated $290 million shortfall in that part of the state transportation budget used to repair and maintain roads and bridges. The money could also make up for the elimination of new abusive driver fees, a top priority for Senate Democrats.
Last year's transportation package was hailed as the largest infusion of money for roads and transit in 21 years, but local and state officials now say they are worried the program could unravel. The abusive-driver fees were a key source of revenue in the package, and the fate of regional taxing authorities in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads is uncertain.
The Democrats did not offer specifics at their news conference, but Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said he plans to meet with colleagues in the coming days to discuss possible solutions. Some Democrats are advocating an increase in the state's gasoline tax, but there are divisions in the caucus over how to proceed.
"We are going to talk about a sustainable amount of money to take care of the maintenance fund," Saslaw said. "We are going to get everything taken care of this year."
But many House and Senate Republicans said they will not consider new or higher taxes, and the General Assembly could be headed for a showdown over transportation similar to the one that consumed lawmakers during the past two years.
"No taxes. No way," said Del. M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), the House majority whip.
The volatile tax issue was raised on the second day of the session and a day after Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) announced that he wants lawmakers to repeal the controversial fees on bad drivers, which went into effect July 1. The fees, which range from $750 to $3,000, were included in last year's transportation deal as a way to raise as much as $65 million a year for highway maintenance.
Senate Democrats vowed swift action to eliminate the fees.
"It was a huge mistake," Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania), who supported the fees last year, said of the fees. "I think it was the largest mistake I've made in my 25 years in the legislature."
House Speaker William J. Howell (Stafford), one of the sponsors of the transportation package, and other Republicans agreed that there is probably a majority in both chambers to scrap the fees.