Transportation deal stalls in Virginia Senate

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Local,Virginia,Transportation,Steve Contorno

RICHMOND -- A historic compromise that would pay to fix Virginia's crumbling, crowded roads will have to wait at least one more day after the Senate left Friday night without taking a vote.

Hours earlier, the Virginia House of Delegates voted 60-40 to raise taxes and fees to pump $880 million a year into transportation coffers with broad bipartisan support.

The measure stalled when Senate Democrats insisted that they won't vote for it unless Gov. Bob McDonnell agrees to extend the state's Medicaid rolls to provide health care to the poor.

A tentative agreement is in place to expand Medicaid to 400,000 low-income Virginians, but it would be contingent on the sweeping reforms to the joint federal-state program. A committee of five delegates and five senators would meet in coming months to monitor efforts to meet those changes and the panel could trigger the expansion if reforms are reached.

Democrats want assurances in writing from McDonnell that he'll honor the Medicaid deal when the measure reaches his desk, but they were unable to secure it Friday night.

"We're presently at the metaphorical toll booth waiting for the governor to make a deposit," said Sen. Don McEachin, D-Henrico.

A spokesman for McDonnell said the governor is still considering the request.

McDonnell, a Republican governor serving his last year in office, hopes to build his legacy by solving the road funding problem the state has been struggling for decades to resolve. Time is running out; the legislative session is scheduled to end Saturday.

The House wasted no time voting for the transportation compromise, passing it early Friday with half of the Republican majority voting for it and most Democrats joining them.

The final bill raises the sales tax statewide from 5 cent to 5.3 cents and by a full penny in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to pay for much-needed projects in those regions. It also eliminates the 17.5 cent tax on a gallon of gasoline and replaces it with a 3.5 percent tax on wholesale gasoline sales and a 6 percent tax on diesel fuel.

Northern Virginia hotels will be required to implement a 3 percent room tax on a night's stay and about $200 million in existing general fund money will be redirected to roads.

All told, it will bring $3.5 million to the state for roads over the next five years with an additional $350 million to be raised and spent in Northern Virginia -- a sticking point for Republicans and Democrats from the area -- and $300 million reserved for finishing the rail line to Dulles Airport.

"This money will never be spent outside Northern Virginia and this money will never be spent on anything but transportation," promised Del. Dave Albo, R-Springfield, a key architect of the local component.

McDonnell faced significant opposition from within his party, including the GOP's choice to replace him, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist also launched an aggressive campaign against the bill, and nearly every statewide candidate for office lined up against it.

Del. Ben Cline, an Augusta County Republican who heads the conservative caucus in the House, called the bill a "laundry list of taxes."

"This bill fills transportation coffers at a price," Cline said, "at a cost of our constituent families' budgets."

But many Republicans and Democrats expressed concern that this year's session would be the last chance to fix the state's longstanding road woes.

"This is truly an opportunity," said Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, just before the House voted. "Our moment of truth."

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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