RICHMOND — The Virginia General Assembly ended its annual session Saturday with passage of a sweeping transportation deal, handing Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) a qualified victory on an issue that has vexed the state for a generation but that also puts him at odds with the conservative wing of his party.
On the last day of the legislature’s 46-day gathering, the Senate gave its blessing to a plan that dramatically overhauls the way Virginians will pay for roads, highways and mass transit — but not before Democrats also won a pledge from McDonnell on the Affordable Care Act’s planned expansion of Medicaid for poor and elderly people.
Soon after McDonnell wrote a blistering letter about his reluctance to expand the shared federal and state program because of growing costs, Democratic senators threatened to derail the $3.5 billion transportation measure unless McDonnell agreed, in writing, to honor their compromise on Medicaid.
He did, and despite a last-minute challenge Saturday from Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, the Medicaid deal held together well enough for the Senate to take up the historic transportation measure a day after the House passed it.
“This isn’t any bill, this is the only bill, and we did not reach this decision lightly without hundreds of hours of anguish and numbers-crunching,” said Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), one of the transportation plan’s final negotiators. “It is the only solution we could come up with.”
The trick in Virginia has been to convince a public that dislikes taxes almost as much as it dislikes traffic jams that the way forward requires new revenue. The new plan would do so by replacing the 17.5 cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline — which had not been changed since 1987 — with a new 3.5 percent wholesale tax on motor fuels that will keep pace with economic growth and inflation. Supporters say the average motorist could pay as much $15 more a month.
The deal’s major components also include boosting the sales tax on nonfood merchandise from 5 percent to 5.3 percent and devoting a fatter slice of existing revenue to transportation instead of schools, public safety and other services. And it creates a regional funding mechanism that boosts the sales tax to 6 percent in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads and requires those funds to be spent only on transportation projects in those areas.
To win passage, Republicans had to swallow their aversion to raising taxes, and Democrats had to accept diverting as much as $200 million a year in general fund revenue toward roads instead of schools or other services.
Supporters praised the plan to raise about $880 million a year, including the new dedicated streams of money for mass transit, while opponents spoke out against taxing different parts of the state at different rates or doubling the registration fee on electric cars to $100 and applying it to alternative fuel and hybrid vehicles, too.
“Why are we moving backwards on a deal that hurts nondrivers?” Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) wondered.
On other side of the aisle, Sen. Ralph K. Smith (R-Roanoke), who represents an area where unemployment is high and household budgets are stretched, said the bill sent an unpleasant message: “We’re going to take a bigger chunk of your wages in multiple ways.”
The Senate ratified the compromise by a vote of 25 to 15, with only eight Republicans voting in the affirmative. On Friday, the House passed the bill by a vote of 60 to 40, with the slimmest majority of the Republican caucus voting for it. The bill now goes to the governor.
McDonnell had challenged the legislature to adopt a new funding plan that would eliminate the per-gallon gas tax, raise the sales tax and take an even larger haul of existing revenue for roads. Lawmakers agreed, but they also heavily revised his initiative, increasing the amount of revenue it would raise through taxes.
“This is a historic day in Virginia,” McDonnell said in a written statement Saturday. “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.”
Though the transportation bill perhaps commanded the most attention, the 2013 legislative session’s 2,574 bills and resolutions also took action on school choice and teacher accountability, tougher requirements for voter ID, and upholding the status quo on relatively easy access to firearms. A school safety task force, convened by the governor after the mass killings at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., led to a package of new measures, including stiffer penalties for people who buy guns illegally and additional money to make schools secure and paying for police officers to guard them.