Governor Bob McDonnell’s five-year, $3.1 billion transportation funding package died on the floor of the Virginia State Senate on Tuesday night, as divided lawmakers decided to sent the proposal back to committee after defeating two Republican floor amendments.
After more than an hour of debate it became apparent there were not enough votes to support the governor’s plan to eliminate the state’s gas tax (17.5 cents per gallon) and replace it with a higher sales tax to fund road and rail construction and maintenance.
The bill was largely blocked by Senate Democrats from northern Virginia who were unhappy with McDonnell’s plan to use general fund revenue that also pays for schools, public safety, and other programs.
At least one senator’s frustration bubbled to the surface. Republican Senator Frank Wagner, whose amendment to establish an eight percent gas tax was defeated as an alternative to the governor’s proposal, implored his colleagues to get behind some plan to create new revenues for the state’s immense transportation needs.
“You know, I told myself in 22 years I'd never get emotional over a bill. And I'm sorry I broke my own damn word. I'm emotional. We've been fighting this for ten years. Ten years now!” Wagner shouted. “I'm here tonight to get a transportation bill passed!”
The Senate is now left to consider a bill passed by the House of Delegates that maintains most of the key provisions of Governor McDonnell’s package, including the elimination of the gas tax. But the administration sounded pessimistic the House bill would fare any better.
“It was quite clear from the floor debate and from the fact they voted against every single transportation funding mechanism before them, and that they didn't even offer any solutions of their own, they have no intention of addressing transportation funding,” said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, who made it clear the administration blamed Democrats for the bill’s demise.
“We’re incredulous,” Connaughton said. “On a day that the Texas Transportation Institute comes out with its nationally known study that says the Washington region has the worst traffic congestion in the entire country, the Senate Democratic caucus voted against every Senate version of transportation funding to date.”
Without some form of compromise, the General Assembly will close its session in three weeks without approving any new transportation revenues.
“Unless the Democrats in the Senate work with us… things do not look very favorable right now,” Connaughton added.
“The governor can send down a bill at any time. That's his prerogative. I would encourage him to find common ground among all the proposals that are out there and there are a lot of them,” said Delegate David Toscano, the leader of the Democratic minority in the House. “It looks like if the governor is not willing to compromise on very much, nothing is going to get done,” he said.
Toscano chided the governor's plan for relying on revenue from future Internet sales -- a marketplace equity bill --that Congress "probably won't pass." He added: "It was deficient in the first place."