Northern Virginia lawmakers joined forces with urban legislators on a key House committee today to defeat a $162.1 million package of gasoline and highway user taxes in a strategic show of strength aimed at garnering more funding for mass transit, including the Metro subway system.
The 10-to-9 vote to kill the tax package sponsored by House Finance Committee Chairman Archibald Campbell (D-Wythe) came moments after the urban-suburban coalition succeeded in defeating a proposed three cents per gallon increase in the state's 11 cents per gallon gasoline tax. The coalition of Northern Virginians and delegates from the urban Tidewater area complained that the committee had not earmarked enough money to subsidize Metro operating losses and improve decaying urban roads.
"We're bound and determined that, by God, our urban needs are going to be recognized and you just can't play this shell game any longer," said Del. Vivian Watts (D-Fairfax), whose vote helped to send the tax package down to defeat. "If we don't get this money for mass transit and for urban roads, then we aren't going to pass any gas tax."
But the move infuriated rural lawmakers. Campbell warned that the Northern Virginians' tactics could jeopardize passage of any bill raising critically needed revenue for highway and transportation programs. Charging that the Northern Virginians "acted very irresponsibly," he noted that his gasoline tax would have earmarked $10 million annually for Metro.
"They're going to look awfully peculiar if they go back empty-handed," Campbell said after the vote. "Four or five years ago, I helped Northern Virginia legislators get a hefty tax for Metro . . . and this is the thanks I get."
Gov. Charles Robb has said an increase in highway revenues is essential this year to bail out a deficit-ridden highway department. The state has concluded that the department needs $360 million to repair pothole-ridden roads and for critically needed construction projects.
The Senate has already approved a $263 million tax package that is centered around a 3 percent tax on gasoline wholesale prices which would result in as much as a three cents per gallon price increase to consumers. Northern Virginian senators had unsuccessfully attempted to block that bill.
Today's action by the House committee is only the first round in what is expected to be a lengthy political struggle over the tax package for the remainder of the legislative session, which ends March 13. Del. Warren Stambaugh (D-Arlington) said the defeat of Campbell's bill "does not end the gas tax by any means." He predicted the next few days "will see an awful lot of arm-twisting" as both sides attempt to reach a compromise over mass transit funding.
The Northern Virginians contended that the Campbell bill did more to hurt their region than help. Campbell's $10 million proposal for Metro would be funded exclusively from tax increases collected in Northern Virginia counties.
Stambaugh and other Northern Virginians wanted to divert one cent of the proposed three cents per gallon increase to mass transit statewide. This would have yielded a total of $24.8 million a year, of which Northern Virginia would have received the lion's share.