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.
With no compromise in sight, one veteran senator called the special session the most "poorly organized show" he has ever seen.
Amid the increasing acrimony, Republicans and Democrats accused each other Wednesday of wasting time. Part of the blame was directed at Kaine, who was accused of calling a special session without a consensus, at a cost of $20,000 a day.
"It's been two wasted days of my life working on this," said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), who serves as president of the Senate. "All I can conclude is the governor called us into special session so he can embark on some political grandstanding maneuver that is going to accomplish nothing for the people of Virginia."
Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) said the GOP legislators are being obstructionists.
"When you are in a transportation crisis, you have to do everything you can to solve it," Howell said.
Kaine spokeswoman Delacey Skinner agreed: "Perhaps the lieutenant governor has forgotten we are all here to work for Virginians, and it is not about our time. It's about what we accomplish for them, and we will accomplish in this special session what we have the political will to accomplish."
House Republicans are expected to move ahead Thursday with fixes to the regional plans in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, which were tossed out by the Supreme Court.
Del. Phillip A. Hamilton (R-Newport News) said his proposal, which is expected to be embraced by the House leadership after it is heard by a committee today, will include a mix of state-imposed and locally enacted taxes, a concession for Republicans who previously had ruled out state-imposed taxes.
Besides the statewide tax increases, the Senate bill also includes higher taxes in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads that would be spent on new roads just in those regions. In Northern Virginia, the Senate plan would assess a hotel tax of $5 a night, increase the tax on the sale of a home by 40 cents per $100 of value and add 0.5 percent to the sales tax. The Senate bill, which was sponsored by Saslaw, would reduce the sales tax on food to offset the gas tax increase.
The powerful Republican-controlled House Rules Committee is expected to take up Saslaw's bill Thursday. Although the bill emerged from the Senate on a partisan 21 to 16 vote, few expect it to succeed in the House, where even many Democrats vow to vote against an increase in the gas tax.
But the Rules Committee might decide to send it or Kaine's bill directly to the floor, forcing House Democrats to go on record as supporting a tax increase -- and allowing GOP members to vote against one.
Most recent legislative successes in Richmond have required extensive negotiations among House and Senate leaders and the governor. In this instance, the opposing sides do not appear as if they are talking.
When Saslaw was asked whether he plans to negotiate a compromise with House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), he said, "He knows what's in the bill."
House Republicans spent Wednesday critiquing Kaine's proposal, which includes higher taxes statewide on car and house sales, a $10 increase in vehicle registration fees and a 1-cent sales tax increase in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
Republicans, led by Howell and House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (Salem), accused Democrats of exaggerating allegations that the state will fall almost $3 billion short of what is needed to maintain its roads and bridges. That is one reason they want an audit. "Before we write a check for $1 billion a year, don't you think we ought to know what the expenses are?" Howell asked Armstrong and Secretary of Transportation Pierce R. Homer.
Armstrong said, "We are not going to fix this problem by telling VDOT to quit buying Post-it notes."
Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William), chairman of the Finance Committee, sees little chance of the two sides coming together.
"The summertime may not be the best time to do this," Colgan said. "September may have been better."