Va. Senate Passes Transportation Bill

Bipartisan bill passes upper house by 25-15 vote

In the final hours of its session, the Virginia State Senate passed a landmark transportation funding reform bill Saturday afternoon, giving Gov. Bob McDonnell a legacy piece of legislation in his final year in office.

The vote, as counted by News4's Julie Carey, was 25-15, as supporters of the bipartisan bill overcame a last-minute obstacle thrown up by state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

The bill replaces Virginia's 17.5-cents-per-gallon retail gasoline tax with a 3.5 percent wholsesale tax on gasoline and a 6 percent levy on diesel fuel. The bill would also boost statewide sales taxes from 5.0 to 5.3 percent, increase the titling tax on car sales and add a $100 registration fee for fuel-sipping hybrid vehicles. It also rules out proposed tolls on Interstate 95 south of Petersburg.

"This is a historic day in Virginia," McDonnell said in a statement. "We have worked together across party lines to find common ground and pass the first sustainable long-term transportation funding plan in 27 years. There is a ‘Virginia Way’ of cooperation and problem solving, and we saw it work again today in Richmond."

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe released a statement of his own praising McDonnell and the General Assembly for the bill's passage.

"The passage of this historic mainstream compromise with bipartisan support is a critical step forward for Virginia. It will make significant progress toward solving our transportation problems and making Virginia the best place for business. Despite last minute attempts by some right-wing ideologues to stop any progress on transportation, Virginia's leaders came together in the middle to find compromise."

The House approved what would become the first major overhaul of transportation funding since 1986 on a bipartisan 60-40 vote Friday. However,  Senate Democrats threatened to block passage of the package of tax and fee increases and revenue diversions that will yield an estimated additional $880 million for repairing and maintaining the state's highway network, unless the Governor agreed not to block expansion of Medicaid to 400,000 uninsured Virginians just above the poverty level.

At the request of Del. Ben Cline (R-Rockbridge) Cuccinelli opined that the General Assembly "may not delegate final legislative authority regarding budget or other matters to a committee composed of a subset of the members of the General Assembly.'' His advisory letter to Cline came hours after McDonnell wrote a letter to budget negotiators in which he expressed conceptual but not specific acceptance of such a panel.

In explaining his reasoning, Cuccinelli -- the presumptive Republican nominee to succeed McDonnell as Governor -- wrote that "the General Assembly is prohibiting (sic) from doing indirectly that which the Virginia Constitution prohibits it from doing directly.''

To oversee Medicaid reforms as the commission is envisioned to do, Cuccinelli wrote, actions toward that end would require a vote of the entire legislature -- at least 51 votes in the 100-member House and 21 in the 40-seat Senate -- to comply with the state Constitution.

The House and Senate also approved revisions to the second year of Virginia's two-year, $88 billion budget before adjourning Saturday evening.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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