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Senate shoots down transportation measure
All 20 Senate Democrats opposed three versions of the bill, and the governor accused them of partisanship.
Wednesday, February 6, 2013
RICHMOND — Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation funding plan hit a pothole in the Capitol on Tuesday night, failing to win support in the politically divided state Senate.
McDonnell’s plan and two Republican-sponsored alternatives were defeated in the Senate, hours after the House of Delegates narrowly approved a revised version of the governor’s bill.
The House bill will be sent to the Senate, where McDonnell and his allies have their work cut out for them trying to keep the legislation alive.
McDonnell’s proposal cratered after the Senate rejected a substitute introduced by Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, and another alternative from Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach. After those proposals failed, with all 20 Senate Democrats opposing them, the Senate used a procedural move to kill McDonnell’s original bill on a voice vote. Tuesday was the deadline for the Senate to act on its own legislation.
“This has been a long day, and it’s probably time to put this thing out of its misery,” said Senate Democratic Leader Richard Saslaw of Fairfax County.
McDonnell blasted Senate Democrats after the vote, saying: “Their partisan, lock-step opposition to fixing transportation is incredibly disappointing.”
“Sadly, the Senate Democrats appear to be the ‘Party of No,’ ” McDonnell said in a statement issued by his office.
McDonnell’s original proposal would eliminate the state’s 17.5 cents per-gallon tax on gasoline, increase the retail sales tax from 5 percent to 5.8 percent and increase vehicle registration fees to generate revenue for roads and transit. McDonnell also wants to shift revenue from the state’s general fund, which pays for services such as education and public safety. The total package would produce $3.1 billion in additional transportation funding over five years, the administration said.
Newman, the Senate sponsor, said McDonnell’s bill, among other things, would have scrapped the proposed sales tax increase and instead imposed a 5.5 percent tax on the wholesale price of gasoline. Newman had hoped that preserving a state tax on gasoline would win votes in the Senate.
This “probably is a bill that doesn’t go far enough for some, and I know from talking to others it goes too far,” Newman said before his proposal died on a 22-18 vote. Republicans John Watkins of Powhatan and Emmett Hanger of Augusta County joined Democrats in voting against Newman’s proposal.
Wagner’s alternative would have applied an 8 percent tax to the wholesale price of gas, and the total package could have produced nearly $1 billion a year for transportation by 2018, he said. Wagner’s proposal got only seven votes, and he blew his stack after Saslaw said it wouldn’t produce enough revenue.
“Well, what is good enough? Where is it?” Wagner fumed.
Senate Democrats said they also remain opposed to proposals that divert money from the general fund to transportation.
“We’ve acted on the same principles that we’ve acted on for years — protect the general fund, have a dedicated source of revenue for transportation and have it be meaningful,” said Sen. Donald McEachin, D- Richmond, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.
Earlier in the day, the Republican-dominated House passed a slightly revised version of McDonnell’s transportation package by a vote of 53-46. Four Democrats cast key votes to provide the majority needed to get the bill passed.
The House bill (HB 2313) retains most key provisions of McDonnell’s plan. It dropped a proposed $100 fee on alternative fuel and hybrid vehicles and added provisions to prohibit tolling on Interstate 95 south of Fredericksburg and to consider regional transportation funding options in the congested areas of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
Del. Onzlee Ware of Roanoke was one of the Democrats who delivered critical votes for the bill, which was opposed by 18 Republican delegates. Ware said he didn’t like every aspect of the legislation, which could generate funding to extend passenger rail service to Roanoke.
“I don’t like the bill — I get a train out of it,” Ware said on the House floor, drawing laughs from his colleagues. “We’re so conditioned to taking crumbs that the train is a good idea.”
But Ware said it was important to keep a bill alive to negotiate with the Senate.
“I always tell people it’s easy to do nothing because you don’t have to think, just say no,” Ware said.
Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, who helped shepherd the bill through the House, said the state has “a dilemma that we cannot get around by wishing it would go away.”
“We are not funding and dealing with the infrastructure needs that we have,” Jones said. “We are running away from that because we don’t have the courage to do what is right.”
McDonnell said the House vote “means a transportation bill is still advancing this session, despite today’s partisan blockade by Democrats in the state Senate.”
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