RICHMOND, Va. — A major rewrite of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s road funding overhaul won Senate passage without debate Wednesday.
The 26-14 vote sends the drastically amended bill back to the House of Delegates, where a two-thirds Republican majority is hostile to the Senate’s bid to not only restore the 17 ½ cents-per-gallon gasoline tax that McDonnell wants to eliminate but increase it by a nickel per gallon.
As passed last week by the House, the bill would repeal the gasoline tax altogether.
Sen. Frank Wagner’s amendment also adds a statewide 1 percent wholesale tax on gas and diesel and an option for localities to levy an additional 1 percent tax. It earmarks for transportation most of the state sales taxes that would be collected on Internet and catalog purchases should Congress enact legislation authorizing it.
The amendment also prohibits the imposition of tolls on existing interstate highways in Virginia without legislative approval, something that would scuttle administration plans to charge tolls of at least $4 on a stretch of Interstate 95 south of Richmond to the North Carolina border.
Wagner’s proposal would generate nearly $4.5 billion statewide through its first five years with the potential to yield another $3.8 billion if city and county governments take advantage of his local-option funding component.
McDonnell’s preference, the House bill, would produce about $3 billion over five years.
With the Republican-dominated House certain to reject the Senate amendment, that sets up high-level private talks by a select committee of senators and delegates with input from McDonnell’s administration to see if a compromise between the widely different positions is possible by the General Assembly’s scheduled Feb. 23 final adjournment. The Senate has 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats.
Transportation funding is the centerpiece of McDonnell’s quest for a legislative legacy along with public school reforms that would pay teachers more in return for greater leeway in dismissing underperforming teachers.
All 20 of the Senate’s Democrats joined six Republicans to pass the bill, at least keeping open the only remaining legislative pathway for achieving transportation funding changes that have eluded Virginia lawmakers for a dozen years. That includes two fruitless special sessions solely for that purpose convened by McDonnell’s Democratic predecessor, Tim Kaine, now a U.S. senator.
Opposition to Wagner’s amendment represented a bloc of some of the chamber’s most conservative members, who dislike what they see as a large tax increase. Some, however, also had reservations about McDonnell’s initial plan, which would have replaced the current volume-based gasoline tax with a 0.8 percent increase in the overall retail sales tax. It also relied on potential online sales tax collections, increases in fees and a $100 fee that would be added to the purchase of new hybrid fuel cars. His bill left the fuel tax on diesel fuel, which chafed truckers and owners of diesel-engine vehicles.
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