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Virginia House Democrats offer alternative to Youngkin plan to cut gas tax

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) pumps gas for a customer at a station in Henrico County last month. (Bob Brown/Associated Press)

RICHMOND — Democrats in the House of Delegates on Friday floated an alternative to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s plan to suspend the Virginia gasoline tax for three months, instead proposing to send $50 cash to each car owner, up to $100 per household.

Republicans who control the House dismissed the new idea, even as they made preparations to get Youngkin’s proposal before a committee so it can advance. The General Assembly is technically still in special session, with work on the two-year state budget incomplete. The legislature is slated to meet again April 27 to take up any vetoes from the governor or other unfinished business.

But Youngkin’s plan seems destined to hit a dead end in the Senate, led by Democrats, which would have to approve anything passed by the House before it could become law.

The war of futility came as the average price of a gallon of unleaded in Virginia declined slightly to $4.01 on Friday, less than the national average of $4.14, but up sharply from the average of $2.72 last year, according to AAA. Costs have been inflated by several factors in the global oil market, including the Russian war against Ukraine.

By comparison, the average price of a gallon of unleaded in Maryland, which temporarily suspended its gas tax of 36 cents per gallon last month, was $3.75.

Maryland lifts gas tax for one month as prices increase

Virginia Democrats have argued that suspending the state tax of 27 cents per gallon would primarily benefit companies that sell gas, who would not necessarily pass savings on to consumers. They also note that as much as 30 percent of the gas sold in Virginia is purchased by motorists who live elsewhere.

“We felt strongly we needed an alternative and we wanted to focus on Virginians, not out-of-state drivers,” House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) said. “We said, how can we get money back in the hands of Virginians right away?”

She said the $437 million that Youngkin estimated his plan would cost would deprive the state of crucial transportation funding. Republicans have countered that transportation funds are running a surplus, but she said the list of needs is too lengthy to afford any cuts. The Democratic plan has a price tag of about a third of the Youngkin proposal, with the $50 amount aimed at offsetting taxes on about 200 gallons of gas, she said.

Youngkin calls for gas tax holiday amid discord in legislature

Democrats also renewed their call for Youngkin to invoke a state of emergency so the state can prosecute gasoline retailers for price gouging, pointing out that state Attorney General Jason Miyares (R) this week announced a settlement in a price gouging case brought last year when former governor Ralph Northam (D) declared an emergency in the wake of a pipeline shutdown.

House Republicans rejected the Democratic proposals. “Democrats have offered fact-free claims that a gas tax holiday won’t lower prices, or that oil companies will benefit most, or that Virginians are the victims of price gouging,” said Garren Shipley, spokesman for the House Republican leadership. “In reality, places like Maryland, Connecticut and Georgia have all suspended their gas taxes and the price of gas has gone down.”

Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said suspending the gas tax remains the best way to help Virginians cope with inflation, which has been raising the cost of many types of consumer products. “The governor appreciates that Democrats are finally realizing the impact rising costs are having on Virginians,” Porter said in a written statement, “but their new brainchild does nothing to lower gas prices and is ripe for fraud.”

She pointed out that Democrats in New York have recently acted to suspend gasoline taxes in that state, and called on the General Assembly to deliver a broad range of tax cuts as negotiators work to finalize a budget.

Virginia governor pitches tax cuts to audiences around state

Youngkin called lawmakers back to Richmond on April 4 to prod them on the budget, but House and Senate negotiators were not yet ready with their plans and recessed after a little more than an hour. He rolled out his gas tax suspension bill that day, calling for the tax to be lifted for three months then phased back in later this year. It needs to go through the regular legislative process before it can advance to the floor of the House.

Shipley said that House Finance committee members were looking for a time to meet to consider the bill. Once it advances to the full House, which is likely given the Republican majority, standard procedure would mandate at least two days for the bill to be debated and voted on. It could be done faster if Democrats agree to waive the rules.

Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) is not optimistic on either the Youngkin plan or the House Democratic alternative on his side of the Capitol. The House Democratic plan “was not coordinated with the Senate Democratic caucus and I don’t believe it has any support within the caucus,” Surovell said. The gas tax holiday pushed by Youngkin, he said, is a nonstarter because Democrats see it as favoring oil companies and drivers out of state. “The governor’s proposal is wacky policy,” he said.