A desperate attempt by Northern Virginia legislators to extract more state money for mass transit collapsed today when the state Senate approved a major new gasoline tax that offers no money to the Washington area Metro system.
The Senate's Democratic leadership beat back a loose coalition of Northern Virginians, Republicans and rural senators and won approval on a vote of 23 to 13 for a bill that would raise $263 million through higher gasoline taxes and highway user fees over the next two years.
The bill, which includes a 3 percent tax on wholesale gasoline sales, now goes to the House, where even proponents admit its chances are slim.
Northern Virginia senators, who a day earlier had had the votes to kill the bill, viewed the Senate vote today as a setback but not a defeat in their continuing battle for more state aid for mass transit.
"It shows everybody we are serious," said Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax), chairman of the Northern Virginia caucus. "This is not the end of the road."
Frustrated after years of pleading for more state aid to Metro, the 29 members of the Northern Virginia delegation in both houses decided two months ago to stand united and refuse any support for new tax measures unless money was promised to mass transit.
Northern Virginia's unified front was frayed somewhat last week when two Northern Virginia senators broke with Brault and voted to release the proposed tax bill from the Senate Finance Committee. Today, four of the eight Northern Virginians abstained on the vote, three voted against the tax bill and only Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William) voted for it.
Last week, Brault fought unsuccessfully in committee for an amendment to divert one-quarter of the proposed $189 million in gasoline tax revenues to mass transit, raising Metro's share in the state's two-year budget from $14 to $29 million.
On the floor yesterday, Brault argued that the proposed 3 percent tax would put an extra burden on Northern Virginia motorists and gasoline station owners who, by this July, will already be paying an extra 4 percent regional gasoline tax designed to support Metro costs.
"This not only affects Northern Virginia but it affects the entire Commonwealth," said Brault, arguing that drivers would start leaving the state to buy their gasoline. "You reach a point of no return. You can't go but so high."
In their effort to block the tax increase, the Northern Virginians looked elsewhere for support, trying unsuccessfully to rally an old coalition with legislators from the mountainous Southwest. In the end, their allies were mostly senators who felt the state's highway department does not need additional revenue.
By yesterday, opponents had picked enough support to force Sen. Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond), sponsor of the bill and president pro tempore of the Senate, to postpone a final vote. A key vote on an amendment to eliminate the 3 percent wholesale tax, although defeated, revealed unexpected strength in the Northern Virginians' camp.
In the intervening 24 hours, both sides lobbied hard with wavering senators but today's roll call showed the powerful leadership with two votes more than the 21 required on tax measures.
Some senators felt that the Northern Virginians were risking too much in their united stand against the bill, and even some of the Northern Virginians were nervous about possible retaliations when Willey's committee considers the state budget. Abstentions by two of the delegation's senators, Sen. Clive DuVal (D-Fairfax) and Sen. Edward M. Holland (D-Arlington), were another indication that Northern Virginians were mindful of the danger of offending Senate leaders.
After the vote, DuVal said he thought the Northern Virginians had at least made their point. "It was close enough--23 to 17 if you count the abstentions--that it guarantees that the next time any bill comes back over here, they will have to talk to us," he said.