Crafting a Hybrid Virginia Transportation Plan Could Be Tricky

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Prospects for reconciling disparate transportation funding reform bills appeared possible Monday, but crafting a hybrid plan that can win final passage in the House and the Senate is a much tougher prospect, legislative negotiators said.

Five delegates and five senators shuffled between hurried meetings Monday with both Republicans and Democrats reporting steady, measured headway toward a possible handshake deal that could get a House and Senate vote by Saturday's scheduled General Assembly final adjournment.

"The numbers are close enough, in my opinion, that we could have a bipartisan conference report," said Del. Onzlee Ware of Roanoke, the lone Democrat among the House conferees. "From the House side, we certainly want to get a transportation bill out."

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But for such a plan -- still at least another day away by even the sunniest estimate -- to gain the minimum 51 House votes and 21 Senate votes necessary to pass would require a level of give-and-take rare on Capitol Square in recent years.

No one is pushing harder than Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell for an acceptable compromise over the next five days to secure a legislative legacy with the first meaningful reform of transportation funding since the 17-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax was enacted 27 years ago.

Delegates and senators said they met privately with McDonnell to discuss ongoing transportation talks on Monday, something administration spokesman J. Tucker Martin would not confirm or discuss.

For the House to accept a transportation agreement, Senate Democrats have to allow about five times more existing sales tax money to be used for transportation than the Senate bill now allows, said House conferee Del. S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk.

"There's got to be a meaningful general fund piece, and that means more than the $50 million that's in theirs (Senate plan) right now," Jones said.

The Senate version would increase the share of the existing sales shifted from the general fund to transportation by .05 percent, from .5 to .55 percent, generating an average of $51.3 million over the next five years. McDonnell's preference, approved by the House, called for increasing transportation's share from .5 to .75 in equal increments over five years, with revenue increasing over that period from about $50 million the first year to about $280 million annually.

Democrats fundamentally object to using sales tax receipts and other general taxes that pay for core state services such as public education, schools and law enforcement to transportation. Republicans just as vehemently insist that transportation is an equally core function of state government.

For the Senate to accept a compromise, House Republicans and McDonnell need to accept that the gasoline tax McDonnell wanted to abolish altogether is not going away, at least not totally, said Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw.

"No way my caucus is going along with getting rid of the gasoline tax -- it's not going to happen," Saslaw said as Senate conferees gathered privately in a 10th floor General Assembly Building office a few steps away. "There's going to be a gas tax."

While Saslaw is not a Senate negotiator on the transportation bill, he leads his party in a Senate where Democrats and Republicans each hold 20 seats. If the Democratic senators hold firm, the bill dies in the Senate for failure to achieve a majority in the 40-seat chamber. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican who presides over the Senate and casts tie-breaking votes, is barred by the state Constitution from voting on bills that levy taxes or appropriate money.

"I said in the House that we'd have a hybrid approach in the final report, and that that would include some general fund and some gas tax," Jones said.

Transportation negotiators are meeting simultaneously alongside a dozen lawmakers who are conferring on midpoint revisions to the state's two-year budget. Most of them share duties on both conferences. That means a prompt agreement on a transportation bill could create momentum for a timely conclusion on the budget, Jones said.

Except for the timing of the state's potential expansion of Medicaid under the federal health care law, there is little dispute between the House and Senate revisions to the budget. Neither the House nor Senate appropriates any money for expansion, but the Senate version empowers McDonnell's administration to pursue expansion as early as January provided the federal government accepts several state cost-saving and efficiency reforms. The House version is contingent on legislative approval next year.

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