With GOP split, Dems hold cards on roads bill fate

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Photo -   Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, left, and Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, right, have a light moment outside the Governor's office in the State Capitol in Richmond, Va. Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. Watkins has been instrumental in getting a compromise on McDonnell's transportation bill. (AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, Bob Brown).
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, left, and Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, right, have a light moment outside the Governor's office in the State Capitol in Richmond, Va. Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. Watkins has been instrumental in getting a compromise on McDonnell's transportation bill. (AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, Bob Brown).
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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Democratic General Assembly minorities hold the keys Friday to passage or failure of the first major Virginia transportation funding reforms in 27 years with Republican conservatives opposing the measure in defiance of House and Senate GOP leaders and a Republican governor who has bet his legacy on it.

With decisive up-or-down votes due Friday on the $880 million-a-year compromise brokered early this week by a select committee of five senators and five delegates, as many as two-dozen conservative delegates and up to nine senators on Thursday either opposed it outright or were leaning against what they consider a massive tax increase.

That could leave the issue to Democrats, most of them from urban or suburban regions with dire transportation funding needs, who voiced misgivings Thursday about diversions of existing general revenues away from schools, health care and public safety. They also sought to leverage possible support for transportation reforms for GOP votes for Medicaid expansion authority Saturday in the budget bill.

"It's a little bit volatile right now," conceded Sen. Emmett Hanger, an Augusta Republican who supports the compromise.

The already contentious issue of Medicaid expansion became even more formidable to the looming transportation and budget votes Wednesday when Gov. Bob McDonnell sent a letter to budget negotiators admonishing them not to authorize broadening Medicaid to an additional 400,000 uninsured Virginians just above the poverty line until sweeping cost and efficiency reforms to the federal-state program are achieved.

What appeared to be broad Democratic support for transportation became more uncertain after McDonnell's unabashed rant against Medicaid expansion.

"Isn't it immoral to deprive 400,000 Virginians — our neighbors — of medical insurance?" Sen. Janet D. Howell, D-Fairfax and one of the transportation compromise negotiators, said in upbraiding McDonnell in a floor speech.

It would be equally immoral, she said, to miss out on 30,000 jobs that Medicaid expansion could create in Virginia, while taxes Virginians pay to for Medicaid expansion go elsewhere.

"His timing couldn't have been worse," said Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan and one of the five senators who helped negotiate the deal. "The Democrats hold the cards in both chambers. They (Republicans) can't pass it on their own in either chamber."

Others who were on the conference committee with Watkins also seethed Thursday over McDonnell's uncompromising letter, released hours after the committee concluded four days of intense bargaining with their politically fragile accord Wednesday morning.

Among those who said they were on the fence were Del. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, whose Hampton Roads region desperately needs relief from traffic congestion, but said he was being pressured heavily by both sides.

"There are some people who are not for any kind of tax increase under any circumstance, there are some people who haven't made up their minds yet, and there are some people who are very much for it," he said. "I haven't read the bill yet. I want to do that before I make up my mind."

Under the transportation compromise, the state's 17-½ cents-per-gallon retail gasoline tax would be replaced with a 3.5 percent tax collected at the wholesale level and a 6 percent levy on diesel fuel. The general sales tax would climb from 5 percent to 5.3 percent. The titling tax on new car purchases would increase from 3 percent to 4.3 percent. Buyers of new fuel-stingy hybrid cars would pay an additional $100 fee.

And the share of the existing sales tax that is dedicated to transportation would increase over four years from .5 percent to .675 percent, shifting about $200 million annually away from the general fund after a four-year phase-in.

Conservative Republicans rallied their opposition to it Thursday, including Grover Norquist, who heads the Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform, and Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia's crusading conservative attorney general and the presumptive Republican nominee for this year's governor's race.

Del. Rob Bell was unequivocal in his opposition.

"The increased revenues amount to a tax increase, and I will be voting against it," said Bell, R-Albemarle, a Republican seeking his party's nomination for attorney general.

His rival for the attorney general nomination, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, wasn't as emphatic but said it's "going to be a challenge for me to get there and support that."

But in a twist indicative of the strange political alliances that have taken shape over the bill, the presumed Democratic nominee for governor is allied with McDonnell in support of the transportation plan.

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