RICHMOND — When lawmakers return to the Virginia Capitol on Wednesday to consider revisions to the landmark transportation deal and other amendments, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s suggested changes may not give them much new to fight over, some say.
McDonnell (R) has issued fewer amendments than last year, and that could mean the 2013 session will not be a repeat of last year’s marathon to finish legislative business. Still, the General Assembly has to act on other matters, including the election of judges.
“It’s always busy, and there’s always something unexpected that comes up,” said House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). “The governor hasn’t done an abundance of amendments. This won’t be as contentious or as long.”
McDonnell spokesman Paul Logan said many of the governor’s proposed changes to legislation were technical or administrative in nature, or aimed at addressing legal concerns.
“He would like to see [the changed legislation] pass as is, without any further changes,” Logan said.
The transportation deal reached in the final days of the session was a revised version of a plan McDonnell submitted at the beginning of the session. That plan sought to eliminate the gas levy and establish a wholesale tax and pushed to create regional funding authorities in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads that would tax those areas to cover their transportation projects.
Lawmakers voted to replace the 17.5 cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline — which had not been changed since 1987 — with a 3.5 percent wholesale tax on motor fuels that will keep pace with economic growth and inflation.
Soon after the transportation plan was approved, some critics blasted it as nothing more than a tax increase. McDonnell’s proposed amendments would reduce several taxes and fees lawmakers agreed to as part of the legislation. A $100 fee on alternative-fuel vehicles would instead be set at $64, and the vehicle titling tax would drop from 4.3 percent to 4.15 percent at the request of car dealers. The transient occupancy tax would go from 3 percent to 2 percent to keep hotels in Northern Virginia competitive.
The plan is expected to generate $1.4 billion a year.
“It was a compromise with a lot of moving parts,” Howell said. The governor “was cognizant of the fact that he wouldn’t want to make any major changes for fear of undoing that.”
McDonnell also proposed changing the legislative language concerning the regional taxation authorities after Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) advised they could be unconstitutional in their current form. The compromise specifically includes the establishment of transportation funds for Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.
Cuccinelli, who is running for governor this year, warned that, with few exceptions, the state constitution does not allow the General Assembly to impose special taxes on geographic areas, though it can do so based on non-geographic criteria.
The governor’s proposed amendments shift the emphasis from geographical areas and create new criteria. The changes call for population thresholds of 1.5 million residents, 15 million transit trips a year, and 1.2 million registered vehicles before a taxation authority can be established. Only Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads meet those criteria.
“He’s significantly minimized the opportunity for a lawsuit, but even if it is constitutional,” it’s unfair, Del. Robert G. Marshall said. The Prince William Republican said that Northern Virginians would pay at least twice as much as other residents for road maintenance and construction.
Marshall, who voted against the plan, said his mind is not changed by the governor’s amendments. And he pointed out that the looming primary campaign season could factor into the process for some lawmakers who initially supported the plan.
“Nobody who voted no is going to switch,” Marshall said. “How willing are they going to be to reaffirm this? [The election] is going to be in the back of their minds. People are really livid about what they did.”
McDonnell’s amendments also included tweaks to a compromise reached on Medicaid expansion that assured support from some Democrats on his marquee issue of transportation. Under the agreement, the legislature will form a 10-member commission to oversee Medicaid expansion if certain goals are achieved. McDonnell said his proposed changes are aimed at further defining what reform will look like in Virginia.
“My initial reaction is that I don’t know if anything he’s done has delayed Medicaid expansion,” said Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico), who added that he has not fully reviewed McDonnell’s amendments. “But any changes that delay our ability to implement Medicaid reform by July of next year will be resisted in the Senate and ultimately defeated.”