Va. Senate Approves 6-Cent Rise In Gas Tax

By Tim Craig and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 26, 2008

RICHMOND, June 25 -- The Virginia Senate voted along party lines Wednesday to raise the gas tax by 6 cents, but officials in both parties say the measure has almost no chance in the House of Delegates, leaving many legislators to wonder whether any plan to pay for transportation will be resolved in the current special session.

Senate Democrats said the GOP-dominated House would kill the bill but voted on no alternative. House Republicans seem determined to force a vote to show they are unified against tax increases. Much of Wednesday's debate centered less on road-building than on the themes Republicans and Democrats plan to use in the 2009 elections, when Virginians will elect a governor and all 100 delegates.

"We have been awash and are swirling in a sea of politics," said House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry).

After a day of fierce partisanship and escalating rhetoric, Senate Democrats ignored a proposal by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), approving a plan that would raise the gas tax over the next six years, increase the statewide sales tax by 0.25 percent and boost the tax on vehicle purchases by 0.5 percent. Together, the taxes would raise $452 million annually.

"I don't know any other way to fix this without raising and spending money," Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said.

Democrats say the state cannot afford to wait to raise additional money for transportation, even if that means higher taxes. Republicans counter that it's irresponsible to raise taxes during an economic slowdown.

But unlike past budget and tax battles in which the Senate and House were pitted against each other, the fissures are much broader and go far beyond rivalries between the two chambers.

"There is no consensus in the General Assembly of Virginia between any group on how to approach transportation," Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) said on his chamber's floor. "I am not afraid of tax increases, but this is not the time and this is not the place and everyone in this room knows it is not going to happen."

After the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in February that part of last year's transportation deal was unconstitutional, Kaine called a special session and presented a $1 billion tax increase that kept the gas tax as it is.

House Democrats embraced the plan, but Saslaw and Senate Democrats are advocating the increase in the gas tax so that out-of-state motorists share in the burden of raising revenue.

The Republican majority in the House opposes any statewide tax increase, saying it wants to try to salvage last year's deal and pursue an audit of how the state spends transportation money.

Senate Republicans, some of whom have been open to raising taxes in the past, are now siding with their GOP House colleagues. "This is a difficult year for us to sign up for tax increases when you read the headlines and you know the state of the economy," Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) said.

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