The House Finance Committee, in a surprising reversal of its stand of two days ago, today approved a compromise two-cent-per-gallon version of Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton's proposal for a statewide gasoline tax increase.
Three of the 10 legislators on the 20-member committee who had opposed the governor's bill monday switched their votes today after extracting a pledge from the compromise bill's sponsor, Del. Martin A. Perper (R-Fairfax), that he would resist any effort by the state Senate to increase the tax to three or four cents a gallon.
It was the refusal of Dalton and Del. Vincent F. Callahan (R-Fairfax), who had introduced the governor's bill, to make such a promise that had doomed a tax increase bill Monday.
The latest proposal would raise about $60 million annually for highway construction and maintenance, but would include virtually no money for Metro in the Virginia suburbs. The House previously approved a separate measure, sponsored by Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington), imposing a four-percent retain gasoline retail sales tax in the Washington suburbs alone to pay for the rapid rail system.
Should both tax measures pass intact, Northern Virginians will be paying about seven cents more in state taxes for each gallon of gasoline they purchase beginning this July.
The two-cents-a-gallon statewide tax now goes to the House floor, where Perper, House Majority Leader Thomas W. Moss and Finance Chairman Archibald A. Campbell (D-Wythe) all predicted it would have little difficulty achieving passage.
The Stambaugh bill came under renewed bickering between Northern Virginia's legislators and local governments today -- a conflict that some lawmakers say may yet jeopardize the measure.
Monday's Finance Committee vote killing the Dalton tax plan had prompted two days of closed-door maneuvering among tax increase proponents. Some favored amending the Stambaugh bill in the Senate to include a statewide tax, while others talked of somehow resurrecting the Callahan bill defeated by the committee.
A third group came up with an alternative vehicle -- an obscure bill proposed by Perper five weeks ago that would have raised the statewide tax 4 percent. The bill, long ago superseded by Dalton's proposed four-cent-per-gallon tax plan, had lingered on the finance committee's calendar virtually unnoticed.
"This one was hibernating on you," Perper told startled tax opponents at the alternately acrimonious and grimly humorous committee session today.
Perper agreed to amend his bill to two cents and promised to oppose any later legislative move to raise the amount. In a crucial secret meeting yesterday with Charles G. Walker, Alton's administration and finance secretary, Perper and fellow committee member Norman Sisisky (D-Petersburg) extracted a promise that the administration would not push for an amendment raising the amount in the Senate.
That meeting led opponents to charge Perper with "plotting and "maneuvering around" with the administration to push through the tax.
"We're just panicking," said Del. Johnny S. Joannou (D-Portsmouth), who said a two-cent increase was nothing but "bandaids and rubber bands" and "there's been no new evidence between today and Monday" justifying a reversal of the committee's earlier decision.
Perper took credit for resurrecting the statewide tax increase with his bill, but a fellow committee member said privately the idea had first come up in a discussion nearly two weeks ago among four proponents of the proposal who feared the Dalton-Callahan bill was doomed.
One person who apparently took no part in the negotiations was Dalton himself, who was in Washington attending the National Governor's Association conference until late last night. With the exception of Walker, members of the Repbulican governor's administration were conspicuously absent from today's meeting.
Nonetheless Dalton spokesman Paul G. Edwards said after a vote, "The governor is delighted," Edwards stressed that Dalton "has made no deals with anybody about being bound by the House action," but added the administration had no plan to try to raise the tax to three or four cents in amending it in the Senate.
One bill that faces a number of amendments is Stambaugh's 4 percent regional gasoline sales tax, which would raise between $22 million and $37 million annually for Metro and funnel the money directly to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, the region's Metro arm.
Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax) offered a series of amendments to the Stambaugh bill at a Senate Finance Committee meeting today, including one that would send half the money to the region's local governments. They argue they need to exercise some fiscal controls over Metro spending.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, meeting in special session this morning, unanimously rejected the Brault proposal, insisting instead that all of the tax proceeds be returned to the localities. They argued that Fairfax would be shortchanged by Brault's so-called 50-50 plan.
That led Stambaugh to charge that the supervisors "are incredibly greedy . . . if they want all or nothing, they'll get the latter." He said he would continue to oppose sending any of the money back to the localities.
Stambaugh did agree to other Brault amendments, including one calling for the tax to be levied and collected directly by the state, not the region's local governments. That provision would eliminate the need for approval of the tax by the localities and ensure there would be no repetition of 1976, when the Genereal Assembly, then-Gov. Mills E. Godwin and four Northern Virginia localities all agreed to the tax only to have one jurisdiction -- Fairfax City -- veto it.