Transportation creates rift among lawmakers

By Whitney Spicer
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – No General Assembly session is without its ups and downs, quarrels and disputes. However, the 2013 session may have taken the trophy for the most sparring between Democrats and Republicans – especially when it came to transportation.

The transportation funding overhaul plan (House Bill 2313) underwent numerous changes throughout the session as each party added things it wanted or things it didn’t. That’s normal for most bills travelling through the legislative process. But some believe certain changes to HB 2313 had more to do with petty politics and less to do with addressing some of the worst gridlock in the country.

“Too often, Virginia’s crucial needs like transportation are sacrificed because of partisanship and a lack of transparency,” said Sen. Kenneth Alexander, D-Norfolk.

In the final version approved by both the General Assembly and Gov. Bob McDonnell, the transportation plan reduces the gasoline tax but increases the sales tax, particularly in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, in order to earmark more revenue for state and regional transportation projects. McDonnell said the tax hikes, which take effect July 1, will raise nearly $800 million dollars a year in revenue.

Not everyone has been receptive to the idea of raising taxes, though. Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, criticized both McDonnell and the Democrats.

“The governor started this ball rolling in the wrong direction and . . . was warned the Dems would hijack any moving legislation and make it a larger tax hike. They did. Right on schedule,” Norquist said in a statement.

“This was strategically the dumbest move of a modern American politician.”

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, was among a number of legislators who initially opposed the bill but, in the end, voted for it.

“Legislating is about compromise,” Deeds said. “I knew the bill was imperfect, but instead of the flaws, I was captured by the possibilities.”

Traffic backup on I-95 north in Richmond. VDOT photo.
Traffic backup on I-95 north in Richmond. VDOT photo.

Since the beginning of the session, McDonnell pushed the issue of overhauling transportation funding. By achieving that goal, some analysts say McDonnell has cemented his legacy as governor of Virginia.

But the air of controversy surrounding HB 2313 will not dissipate any time soon.

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee for governor in this November’s election, staunchly opposed the transportation funding overhaul. Cuccinelli went so far as to say that portions of the bill were unconstitutional.

His undeniable condemnation of McDonnell’s signature accomplishment has raised questions whether, if elected governor, Cuccinelli would undo the funding bill.

On the other hand, Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, has praised McDonnell and both parties for reaching a compromise on transportation funding. “It wasn’t perfect, and there are plenty of things I disagree with, but inaction on transportation was no longer an option.”

So for the governor’s race and the next legislative session, buckle your seat belts. Here we go again.

Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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