- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 8, 2012

RICHMOND Gov. Bob McDonnell’s 2012 transportation agenda took a major stumble Wednesday as several of his top priorities were stripped from a Senate omnibus bill, which also includes a measure to index the state’s gasoline tax to inflation that his office has not openly embraced.

Mr. McDonnell’s proposals that would increase the amount of the state sales tax devoted to transportation and direct a portion of future general fund growth to transportation were both absent from a substitute bill Sen. Frank W. Wagner, Virginia Beach Republican, presented to the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.

Committee Chairman Walter A. Stosch, Henrico Republican, suggested afterward that the sales tax proposal was dropped in order to avoid a protracted battle over the budget later in the session. Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling has conceded that his tie-breaking authority does not extend to voting on the budget, and it therefore cannot pass if all 20 Democrats hold their ground.

“The fact is, we have such a divided membership in the Senate, that in discussing it with members, it was pretty clear that would not survive,” Mr. Stosch said. “So rather than make that an issue which would affect our ability to adopt a budget, that came out.”

Mr. Wagner’s original bill would have also created a statewide toll-road authority, mandated that transportation components of local comprehensive plans align with statewide plans, and required a study on a proposal for localities to maintain their own secondary roads - a notion strongly opposed by Northern Virginia localities.

A spokesman for Mr. McDonnell said the office was disappointed that the sales tax and toll authority provisions were removed from the bill but that they were hopeful the provisions will be in future versions of legislation as it moves forward. A House bill that more closely reflects the governor’s priorities - but also does not include the toll authority - is currently before the House Appropriations Committee.

The toll-road authority had generated significant consternation among some lawmakers and transportation groups because it would cover newly constructed toll facilities and any highways designated by the General Assembly. The tolls were also not corridor-specific, meaning the toll revenue they generated conceivably could have been transferred away from the region where it was collected.

The Senate bill also removed the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s ability to collect annual fees from private companies to name roads and bridges, which had also been part of the governor’s proposal.

Democrats, even with their limited numbers, drew a hard line in the sand on Mr. McDonnell’s proposal to gradually increase the 0.5 percent of the state’s 5 percent sales tax devoted to transportation to 0.75 percent. The proposal would generate an estimated $110 million over the next two years but would divert money from the general fund, which goes toward items such as K-12 education, health care and public safety.

“This has just got to stop - and this is where we draw the line,” he said, referring to the general fund money. “Period.”

Mr. McDonnell has virulently opposed tax increases thus far in his term, but Mr. Wagner’s bill also incorporates a provision that would allow the state’s gas tax to rise along with inflation. Sen. John C. Watkins, Powhatan Republican, vehemently defended the measure as “not a tax increase” when presenting his own bill Wednesday that would accomplish the same thing.

Mr. McDonnell’s office, however, was noncommittal on the measure.

“A broad array of transportation financing mechanisms are always being discussed and put forward by various legislators and groups,” spokesman Jeff Caldwell said. “We will review any specific proposals if they pass the General Assembly.”