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Beyond budget fight politics, a vital issue lurked

RICHMOND, Va. — Beneath the political drama of last week's Senate standoff that nearly derailed the state budget for the third time in two months lurked the overlooked issue of sustained Virginia transportation funding.

The Senate's 20 united Democrats took a black eye Tuesday when they initially blocked passage by demanding more money for the Dulles rail project in the Democrat-friendly suburbs of Washington, D.C. They lost when one of their own switched his vote Wednesday, allowing the budget to pass.

Another protracted partisan budget stalemate in an evenly divided Senate risked state services and construction project shutdowns, and would have left local governments' budgets in limbo.

When it appeared that the Senate's 20 Republicans couldn't secure the necessary 21st vote to pass the $85 billion budget Tuesday, Gov. Bob McDonnell and other Republicans lashed the Democrats for playing politics. Bemoaning politics in the General Assembly is like attending a NASCAR race and complaining about fast driving.

"This is my 21st year in office up here," McDonnell, a former House member and attorney general, said in denouncing Senate Democrats, "and I have to say this is the most fiscally irresponsible act that I've seen during my career."

The Democrats wanted an additional $300 million for the transit project to offset tolls that would double, then triple on an expressway serving Dulles International Airport. The road tolls help finance the rail construction. In a few years, Democrats noted, tolls each way could reach $6.75, an annual cost of around $3,500 for a daily commuter, and be an unfair strain on Virginia's economic heart.

Politics or not, it shone yet another spotlight on a broader, more serious problem. And, ironically, it was a Republican Senator — John Watkins — who spoke the inconvenient truth about it on the Senate floor, lecturing his GOP colleagues about the ruinous long-term consequences of ignoring the need for more state revenue for transportation, even as he admonished Democrats over dangerous budget brinksmanship and lousy timing.

Virginia has struggled in recent years just to pay for upkeep of its existing highways. That legal obligation has first claim over state transportation revenue, mostly from the 17½ cents-per-gallon gasoline tax. The tax, unchanged since 1987, yields less money each successive year as pump prices drive down discretionary driving and engines become more efficient. New projects that could alleviate northern Virginia's perpetual blacktop gridlock, like a Washington Metro transit rail link to Dulles, get what's left after the maintenance needs are met.

Transportation funding has delayed state budgets before. It was a major hang-up six years ago when a new budget was adopted in mid-June, days before the old one expired. Some state agencies had begun preparing for shutdowns.

That year — 2006 — and again two years later, Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine convened special summertime legislative sessions to consider new road revenues. Both times a Republican House majority heeding its no-new-taxes oath to Americans for Tax Reform leader Grover Norquist said no.

McDonnell has taken baby steps toward increased transportation funding, but without tax hikes. In his first year, he coupled $1 billion found in a private audit he ordered of the Virginia Department of Transportation with $3 billion in debt. He's aggressively pursuing financing of new projects through tolling.

He flamed out in his 2011 bid to sell Virginia's government-owned liquor stores and dedicating the proceeds to roads. And last month, his bid to increase the percentage of the existing sales tax reserved for transportation died in the Senate.

But backlogged statewide transportation needs, particularly in northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, total tens of billions of dollars.

In a 9½-minute floor speech Tuesday, Watkins called out fellow Republicans — primarily those in the House of Delegates — for reflexively thwarting efforts to raise and restructure transportation taxes for years.

"I don't think we're adequately dealing with transportation. I've said it for years and years here, and the problem is not on this end of the Capitol," said the 65-year-old Powhatan businessman who served eight terms in the House before moving to the Senate in 1998.

Watkins sponsored legislation that would allow the gasoline tax to rise with inflation, generating nearly $125 million more per year in cash for roads and rails by 2018, according to a Department of Planning and Budget estimate. The bill failed.

If it means defying his party's tax hawks and Norquist himself, so be it.

"I'm on what's-his-name's list ... that everybody's scared to death of," Watkins grumbled, never mentioning Norquist by name. "I've been on his list a long time. Proud of it."

He's not the only Republican to advocate additional highway funding. Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach succeeded in increasing the share of year-end budget surpluses devoted to transportation.

In the House, Del. David Albo, R-Fairfax, failed in his bid to take a larger share of the state insurance license tax for transportation.

Even House Appropriations Committee Chairman Lacey Putney, a Bedford independent who huddles with House Republicans and has served longer than any legislator in Virginia history, was unsuccessful. He proposed boosting the state sales tax by a penny — subject to statewide voter approval in a referendum — and dedicating the revenue equally to highway funding and the general fund.

The bill never made it out of the House Finance Committee.


Bob Lewis has covered Virginia government and politics for The Associated Press since 2000.