Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton, his controversial gasoline sales tax proposal sabotaged by conservative legislators, made a desperate appeal today for new taxes to pay for Metro and highway construction.
Acting at the behest of Democratic legislative leaders, Dalton made an unusual personal appearance before a General Assembly Committee to plea for a solution to the state's transportation crisis.
The COP governor -- again under orders from the Democrats -- backed away from his earlier proposal of a four percent tax on wholesale gasoline prices, instead endorsing a four-cent-per-gallon tax increase.
When the governor's politcally humbling appearance was over, some lawmakers expressed doubts whether his new proposal would fare any better with the Democratic-controlled legislature. Many remained skeptical of the administration's revenue projections and suspicious of the state highway departmet, which would receive most of estimate $130 million in annual revenues from the tax.
"I would say at the very tops we could approve a three-cent increase and it may be even less," said House Majority Leader Thomas W. Moss Jr., one of the Democrats who now appear to be directing the gasoline tax issue.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we approved a temporary one-cent increase and hold the rest off until we can get a management study of the highway department," said Del. Archibald A. Campbell (D.Wythe), one of the agency's most outspoken critics and chairman of the influential House Finance Committee, which must approve any tax increase.
Equally uncertain was the fate of Dalton's unprecendented proposal to use state funds to pay off 95 percent of Metro's subway construction costs -- estimated at at least $20 million over the next two years. Dalton stressed to the Assembly that without the state funds, Metro could lose up to $1.7 billion in federal funds committed to complete the 101-mile rapid rail system.
Moss Campbell and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond) all agreed that the Assembly must earmark more state funds for Metro. Other legislators, however, were dubious noting little support for the transit system in the downstate -- dominated legislature.
"The state didn't go on this Metro tobaggan ride -- Northern Virginia did," said Del George W. Jones of Chesterfield, ranking Republican on the House Finance Committee "It's going to be very difficult to sell more Metro funding to other areas of the state."
Democrats sent word to Dalton two days ago through Del Vincent F. Callahan Jr. of Fairfax, chairman of assembly's GOP Caucus, that he should drop the four-percent proposal to four-cents-per-gallon. Many lawmakers feared the four percent tax, which would raise more and more money as gasoline prices increase, would have given the highway department too much money.
The Democrats told Dalton he should appear today with all the evidence he could muster to support an increase. Their other stipulation was that Republicans could not later blame the tax hike on Democrats. Callahan introduced the bill today.
For much of this week, Dalton, his financial advisers and highway experts worked late into the night preparing today's presentation, which included 14 multi-colored charts and graphs predicting decreasing revenues under the present nine cents per gallon tax.
Dalton noted that 26 other state legislators are considering tax increases for highways. He also defended the highway department -- criticized by many lawmakers for an allegedly bloated payroll -- saying the number of highway workers has decreased slightly during the past 10 years. He added that the deparment had commissioned a consultant's study of its operations and promised an interim report before the end of this year's two-month Assembly session.
Neither the slide show nor the promised consultant's study impressed some legislators. "I've been here for 16 years and the highway department has put on some pretty fancy shows," said Sen. Stanley G. Walker (D-Norfolk). "But they always come back for more money."
House Finance Chairman Campbell told Dalton the legislature planned to conduct its own study of the department. Campbell also said he was disappointed the governor's proposal did not include an additional increase in truckers' fees. Campbell has argued that the trucking industry does not pay its fair share of maintaining state roadways.
Dalton said after the presentation that he did not view rejection of his 4 percent tax proposal as a personal defeat.
"I said all along I wasn't wedded to one proposal and I'm still not," said Dalton. "This is not a political crisis for me but a crisis for the commonwealth."