The Virginia House of Delegates tonight narrowly rejected a compromise version of Gov. John N. Dalton's proposed statewide gasoline tax, a measure the Republican governor had called essential to maintaining the state's roads.
Supporters of the bill, which would have increased the current nine-cents-per-gallon state gasoline tax to 11 cents, refused to concede defeate after the House killed the increase by a 49-to-44 vote.
Most Northern Virginia legislators joined with a sizable bloc of Republicans to vote against the bill after one of the most impassioned debates of what has been an otherwise listless legislative session.
"I think people were swayed by the rhetoric," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan (R-Fairfax), one of only four of 19 delegates from the Washington suburbs to support the measure. "The situation is still very fluid," added Callahan, who said supporters would move Wednesday for reconsideration of tonight's vote.
Other lawmakers expressed doubt that supporters can muster seven additional votes by noon Wednesday when the House again meets. Because the bill is a tax measure, it requires an absolute majority -- 51 votes in the 100-member body -- to pass.
"We're obviously disappointed," said Dalton spokesman Paul G. Edwards. "He [Dalton] hasn't made up his mind what to do. He'll sleep on it and decide tomorrow."
Edwards said the governor's influence was limited. "He's already talked to everybody at great length." He held out the possibility that Dalton would abandon the proposal altogether or else look to the less-hostile Senate for support.
Tonight's action took the governor's supporters by suprise. Late last week, both House Majority Leader Thomas W. Moss (D-Norfolk) and the bill's sponsor, Del. Martin H. Perper (R-Fairfax) had predicted the bill would pass the House.
Left uncertain by tonight's vote is the fate of the 4 percent Northern Virginia sales tax bill to fund Metro, which is bottled up in the Senate Finance Committee.
Some observers believe that should the statewide tax plan be defeated in the House, Committee Chairman Sen. Edward E. Willey, a Dalton ally, may attempt to amend the Northern Virginia bill to make it a statewide tax. The bill then would have to return to the House, where it could face defeat, leaving open the possibility that the General Assembly may scuttle any new Metro funding.
The two-cent-per-gallon increase in the gasoline tax sought by Dalton, coupled with the proposed 4 percent regional gasoline sales tax designed to pay for Metro, would mean that Northern Virginia motorists could be paying at least seven extra cents per gallon starting July 1.
For that reason, seven out of the nine area Republicans and eight out of 10 Democrats voted against the bill. One of the opponents, Del. Warren Barry (R-Fairfax) called the proposal "simply "a patch over a slow leak . . . not a solution." He warned that as gasoline prices continue to rise, Northern Virginians could be paying as much as 10 cents extra for each gallon of gasoline by the end of the year.
Perper argued that without the two-cent increase, Northern Virginia as well as the rest of the state would face continued deterioration of its road system. "We have a rapid transit problem but we also have a highway problem," said Perper.
Tonight's vote was the latest chapter in the saga of the Dalton tax proposal, which suffered a similar defeat in the house Finance Committee last week, but then was resurrected by proponents and passed after some 11th hour legislative maneuvering. The bill's supporters, including House Speaker A. L. Philpott, are expected to use their influence again tonight and Wednesday in an effort to get the bill through the antitax House.
One of the bill's most ardent foes, Del. Richard Cranwell (R-Roaoke County), called the bill "a snake that refused to die." Cranwell also denounced the state highway department, which would receive the $60 million annually raised from the proposed increase, and which many legislators mistrust and contend is mismanaged.
"We need somebody looking down their throats because we're going to roll over dead and given them what they want," said Cranwell tonight.
The normally softspoken Callahan, defending the bill in a loud and emotional voice, implored legislators to "look at the bottom line . . . We cannot let our roads go down."
Del. Johnny Joannou (D-Portsmouth) decried the lack of reliable statistics from the highway department and warned, "When we go down into the pockets of those taxpayers, we'd better know what we are doing."