The Post reports: “The [Virginia state] House and Senate staked out starkly different fixes for Virginia’s transportation funding crisis but were taking the first steps Wednesday night toward hashing out a deal. Both chambers appointed members to a conference committee that would attempt to bridge the gulf between the competing plans for filling the commonwealth’s nearly depleted transportation coffers.” At issue is Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation plan to finally tackle a problem vexing governors of both parties for decades.
The Republican-controlled House passed McDonnell’s bill, which eliminated the gas tax and raised the sales tax 0.8 percentage points to fund roads. The state Senate, evenly split on party lines, took a different route. Unlike McConnell’s bill, the Senate’s version is a huge tax hike — gas tax hiked by 5 cents and indexed plus a 1 percent sales tax on wholesale gas.
But McDonnell’s team and supporters were sanguine on Wednesday. A Richmond Republican told me, “Long and short though, we got two bills going to conference and that’s what we needed. [The Senate bill] won’t be the final bill; it’s a tax hike. But it moves the conversation to the conference committee where we need it to be. That’s a huge victory to get a transportation bill to conference, and most thought we couldn’t do it.”
This comes down to a tough negotiation by seasoned pols. If lawmakers want to produce a bill they’ll have to get it through the Republican-dominated House in a state election year. That would seem to give the upper hand to those pulling against a Senate tax hike.
One key player is Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who can break a tie in the Senate and recently dropped out of the gubernatorial race while leaving the door open to an independent bid. Bolling might raise his profile, be seen as a dealmaker and outfox Republicans gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli, who tried to undermine the governor’s bill by supporting a more conservative measure. Bolling, however, is going to the left on this one — backing the Senate version and supporting a tax hike. That may be a misstep, considering that any future run for governor would have to appeal to fiscal conservatives looking for a more conciliatory figure than Cuccinelli.
At this point, the betting is on McDonnell to use the leverage of the House Republicans and forge a deal for a major legislative accomplishment. If not, he’ll have the Senate Democrats to blame and will be a powerful figure in the state campaign, urging voters to throw out “obstructionist” Democrats. McDonnell is a very popular governor, one of the most popular in the country, and could well help his party rack up big wins in the state legislature in November.
The entire process stands in stark contrast to the dysfunctional federal government. Here in Virginia the chief executive took on his own party, gathered public support and then started pushing the bill through the open, regular legislative process. Each side passed its version and now a compromise is in the works. Imagine if the federal government operated that way — with a chief executive taking the middle ground, both the House and Senate doing their job in a timely manner, and the focus of both parties centered on finding a policy solution, not a political triumph, that has eluded their predecessors. It’s a nice reminder that not every chief executive is as divisive as the president and not every upper body of the legislature is as unwilling as Sen. Harry Reid’s Senate to make tough choices.