Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell assailed on transportation

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Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell appeared last month to have brokered a landmark, legacy-making bipartisan compromise on transportation funding. But just three weeks later, the $880 million plan is facing withering attacks from Republicans, criticism from a regional transportation body and even questions about whether parts of the bill might be unconstitutional.

Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, has not announced whether he will sign, veto or amend the bill, which passed the General Assembly last month with support from Democrats and moderate Republicans.

Right-wing Republicans have urged the governor to veto the bill or remove its tax increases, and other groups have piled on with their own concerns.

Despite the pressure from his party, many analysts say the legislation means too much to Mr. McDonnell’s legacy and political future for him to turn back now.

“I can’t imagine him putting the kind of energy he put into getting this passed, only to veto it because he got some criticism,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “This is the one big piece of legacy legislation that he’s got under his belt.”

The need to improve Virginia’s congested roads and infrastructure has been an ongoing issue in the state, but Mr. McDonnell has been criticized for driving passage of a bill that will increase the state sales tax from 5 percent to 5.3 percent and allow an additional sales tax in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

The governor’s role in the plan’s passage was the likely reason that he was not invited to speak at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference. The blow to his conservative credentials was evident in the conference’s presidential straw poll, where he placed outside the top 10, a year after speaking at CPAC and being mentioned as a possible running mate or Cabinet member for 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

“People who are opposed to tax increases under any circumstances are going to make life difficult for the governor in the future,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “There’s no doubt that some Republicans would view him as less than fully committed to their vision of Republicanism.”

Aside from criticism by Republicans, the transportation plan has also been hit by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, an unelected body that wrote in a letter last week that it wants the governor to remove language that would dissolve the regional taxes if their revenues are used improperly by local governments.

Paul Goldman, former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, has even cast doubts on the legality of state-enacted regional taxes — arguing that the additional taxes in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads violate a state constitutional requirement that taxes be applied evenly throughout the state.

“There’s no way in good conscience that you could read the constitution of Virginia as saying that a majority of legislators can put a tax on whatever region they want,” he said. “It is strictly a tax to raise money on a handful of people because you can.”

Mr. Goldman drew parallels between this year’s plan and an aborted 2007 transportation proposal under Democratic former Gov. Tim Kaine, which the Virginia Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional in 2008 because it gave taxing power to nonelected transportation authorities in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.

He said the issues with this year’s plan aren’t as blatantly questionable but that he could see a legal challenge on the horizon.

Mr. Kidd said he thinks the regional taxes could stand up to a legal challenge, pointing to the fact that Virginia has long charged an additional 2.1-percent sales tax on gas in Northern Virginia to help pay for rail systems.

He said Mr. McDonnell might consider removing some minor taxes or fees from the bill but that he’s more likely to stick to his guns than to veto the plan or send an altered version back to the assembly that they might reject.

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