By Whitney Spicer and Alix Hines
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Gov. Bob McDonnell expressed his disgust after his transportation funding package was derailed by Senate Democrats late Tuesday.
Although the House version of the governor’s transportation plan had passed earlier in the day, the Senate Democrats had a different idea. All 20 Democratic senators vowed to vote against the bill, blocking it for this legislative session.
“Rather than engaging in a debate on how to move forward with tackling our transportation problems, it is apparent that the Senate Democrats are once again content to risk our continued economic prosperity and our citizens’ quality of life,” McDonnell said afterward.
McDonnell’s transportation proposal would replace the state’s gasoline tax with a higher sales tax and vehicle registration fees. That was the focus of House Bill 2313 and Senate Bill 1355.
The governor’s hopes were raised when the Republican-controlled House of Delegates passed HB 2313, a step toward funding “Virginia’s Road to the Future,” McDonnell’s plan to invest $3 billion in road and transit projects over the next five years.
“Our citizens have told us loud and clear that now is the time to get something done on transportation. They deserve a modern, well-funded transportation system that will get them to work and home on time, without delay,” McDonnell said after the 53-46 vote in the House.
HB 2313 would eliminate the state’s 17.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax. At the same time, it would raise the sales tax in Virginia from 5 percent to 5.8 percent. The bill also would raise the registration fee for private vehicles from $33 a year to $48.
Delegates amended HB 2313 to delete an additional fee for hybrid car owners and to prohibit tolls on Interstate 95.
House Democrats criticized the legislation.
“It patches potholes instead of dealing with the severe congestion that cost Virginia our coveted ranking as the best state to do business. It eliminates the gas tax and lets snowbirds traveling to Florida for the winter ride free, while seniors shopping at K-Mart pay a bigger sales tax,” said Delegate Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax.
In the evenly divided Senate, the Democratic opposition doomed SB 1355, raising the specter of a 20-20 tie vote. And because the matter involved revenue, Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who presides over the Senate, could not break the tie in the GOP’s favor.
Sen. Stephen D. Newman, R-Lynchburg, offered a substitute that would ditch the proposed increases in sales tax and vehicle registration fees. Senate Democrats voted as a whole to scrap that idea as well. They were joined by two Republican senators – Emmett Hanger of Mount Solon and John Watkins of Midlothian.
Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, Jr., R-James City, criticized Democrats for their refusal to pass SB 1355.
“Senate Democrats have been absent throughout the process, and that has been their choice,” Norment said. “Their vote today put an exclamation point on their position regarding transportation: They have no plan other than to say ‘no’ to every plan presented.”
McDonnell echoed Norment’s sentiments.
Democratic senators “chose to vote on strictly partisan lines,” the governor said. “The Democratic caucus repeatedly said no to improving transportation in Virginia.”
The Senate’s vote sent SB 1355 back to the Senate Finance Committee. That means it is dead for the session, because Tuesday was the deadline for bills to win approval from their originating chamber.
All is not lost for McDonnell’s plan, however. After clearing the House, HB 2313 now moves to the Senate; it has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee.
McDonnell praised House members for keeping his plan alive.
“Thankfully, their action means a transportation bill is still advancing this session, despite today’s partisan blockade by Democrats in the State Senate. It is now past time that the Senate Democrats support their constituents and get serious about tackling the challenges facing Virginia’s transportation system,” the governor said.
More than 50 business, labor and transportation groups have endorsed McDonnell’s plan. However, it has drawn opposition not only from Democrats but also from some conservative organizations.
For instance, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist, issued a statement shortly after the Senate’s rejection of SB 1355. He called the action a “victory for Virginia taxpayers.”
“The defeat of SB 1355 demonstrates that the state Senate understands that the governor’s transportation proposal was not the best solution to Virginia’s transportation needs,” Norquist said.