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PW senators cautious on governor’s transportation plan

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PW senators cautious on governor’s transportation plan

Two local state senators from different parties questioned this week whether they could support Gov. Bob McDonnell's (R) transportation proposal to eliminate the state gas tax in favor of raising the state sales tax and other fees.
State Sens. Chuck Colgan (D-29th), the dean of the Senate who serves as the ranking member on the upper chamber's Finance Committee, and Dick Black (R-13th), a freshman representing parts of western Prince William and Loudoun, both objected to varying parts of the plan but claimed to keep open minds about supporting a possible compromise.
McDonnell pitched to lawmakers a multi-layer proposal that would include eliminating the tax of 17.5 cents per gallon on regular gasoline (the diesel tax would remain) and replace the lost revenue by bumping the sales tax up from 5 percent to 5.8 percent.
That extra 0.8 cent would be dedicated strictly to transportation.
Meanwhile, he called for an extra .25 cent of the revenue currently generated by the existing 5 percent sales tax to fund transportation.
This is controversial because the 0.5 cent of the tax money goes from the General Fund to transportation even though that revenue stream also pays for education and public safety.
Democratic opponents of spending more money from the General Fund on transportation projects would argue that the commonwealth's four core services will then be left to compete with transportation for an even smaller percentage of remaining money.
Republican proponents of spending more General Fund dollars on transportation, such as Black, argue that transportation is a core service and should be funded like one in the same way the state government takes care of education and public safety.
One enticement McDonnell made to Northern Virginia Democrats with the .25 cent proposal is increasing funding for Dulles Metrorail Extension Project up to $300 million.
Democrats argued during budget negotiations last year that McDonnell shortchanged the Silver Line route connecting Dulles International Airport in Sterling to Tysons Corner.
Also in McDonnell's transportation package is a $100 annual fee for owning an alternative fuel vehicle and a $15 increase in the vehicle registration fee designed to pay for urban passenger rail and transit.
Colgan, whose district snakes across the center of the county from Nokesville to Dumfries and includes the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park, called the elimination of the gas tax "unusual."
He added that McDonnell's plan caught him by surprise when the governor unveiled it on Jan. 8.
"The problem is, out of state cars won't pay anything," said Colgan about the consequences of eliminating the gas tax. "The sales tax (increase) is .8 percent which is a drop in the bucket compared to what we need."
McDonnell's counterpoint is that the gas tax, which has not been raised since 1986, is a declining source of revenue.
His thinking goes that as the gas mileage improves on new vehicles, they consume less fuel, which means the Transportation Trust Fund receives fewer tax dollars.
Black objected to the sales increase locally because he thought it would end up costing Northern Virginia residents more money in the long run than the gas tax.
He also said, "I am not going to support the fees, either one of the fees."
As for whether having a sales tax increase and fee increases in a final bill is a deal-breaker for him, "I'm not quite to that point but I dislike the fees and, you know, I'm not to the point where the transportation package is one that's satisfactory to me at all, but I'm not closed-minded about it," said Black.
"I'm in discussions with the administration and I'll just sort of watch and see what emerges."

Politics at play
Black is counting on whatever deal passing having at least some Democratic and Republican support.
A GOP-backed plan could pass the state House of Delegates without much of an issue as Republicans hold about a two-to-one membership edge.
The Senate, however, is split among 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans.
Also of note is that Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), who can break some but not all ties in the Senate, is considering an independent bid for governor because he is upset with the likely Republican nominee, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) of Nokesville.
If he decides he had the power to vote on McDonnell's transportation bill, the politics of the situation alone means he could be much more unpredictable than he would have been as the Republican nominee-in-waiting, ready to back his friend McDonnell.
McDonnell originally endorsed Bolling for governor but after Bolling suspended his gubernatorial campaign last year, the governor threw his support behind Cuccinelli as the new standard bearer for the Republican Party.
Bolling may not have to vote though if McDonnell whips enough members of his own party with a handful of Democrats.
Colgan crossed the aisle in a break with fellow Democrats to support McDonnell's budget last year, enraging his party but earning praise from the governor.
Often regarded as the most conservative Democrat in the upper chamber, Colgan also tends to side with the GOP on social issues.
He is much more skeptical about McDonnell's latest major initiative though but mentioned that the delegation from Northern Virginia planned to meet with Virginia Department of Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton on Jan. 14.
Connaughton previously served as Prince William Board of County Supervisors chairman and still lives in Triangle.
He earned a reputation as being more of a centrist voice in the GOP during his time governing the county.
The two-term chairman even unsuccessfully challenged Bolling for the party's lieutenant governor nomination in 2005 as a more moderate alternative before former President George W. Bush tapped him to lead the federal Maritime Administration in 2006.
What all of that means is that there are plenty of political issues to consider as well as policy when it comes to McDonnell's quest to find 21 senators ready to back him on the final version of his transportation plan.
"Well, you know, I think if it passes, it's going to be a bipartisan vote," said Black, a freshman senator and former delegate who is one of the legislature's most fiscally and socially conservative members.
"It's not going to be a 20-20 vote because I think the governor is trying to pull people from both sides of the aisle. So, I just really couldn't tell you what the chances are of passages. But I will tell you, I feel certain that there is no way it would be a partisan vote. I think it will require a coalition of votes from both sides of the aisle."
In the mean time, Colgan is not thrilled about the funding streams within the proposal but is keeping his options open.
"I'm willing to listen, let's put it that way," said Colgan.
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