The great (transportation bill) divide
When you have state Del. David Ramadan, the Grover Norquist pledge-signing, Ken Cuccinelli-palling conservative, praising the stance of Chap Petersen, a Democratic state senator from Fairfax, you know you're dealing with an anomalous issue.
Petersen's remarks on the landmark 2013 transportation funding bill endorsed by Gov. Bob McDonnell were spot on, Ramadan said, and Petersen's comments succinctly pointed out the flaws in the much-ballyhooed legislation.
“We’ve been waiting for a sustainable solution, which recognizes that transportation is a state issue – and we deserve to have it solved on our state tax dollar,” Petersen said. “That solution should be simple, uniform and equitable. It should stick to the historic premise that 'the user pays' for our highways. It should treat all taxpayers equally.
“This bill is not that solution ... It doesn’t even pretend to be,” Petersen said before laying out his opposition in more specific terms.
Obviously, Ramadan agreed, and describing his own nay vote, the Loudoun Republican said it was “one of principle.”
House Bill 2313
The dynamic HB 2313 ripped through party lines and personal loyalties during the 2013 session, paving an endless road of political perplexities. Typical McDonnell cheerleaders Ramadan (R-87th), Del. Barbara Comstock (R-34th) and Sen. Jill Vogel (R-27th) were out, bemoaning the taxes associated with the plan; Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, state Sens. Mark Herring (D-33rd) and Barbara Favola (D-31st) and other left-leaning pols were in, applauding the middle-ground resolution.
State Sen. Dick Black (R-13th) called the roads legislation – being hailed by pundits as McDonnell's legacy achievement – “ugly, burdensome and excessive.”
"Unfortunately, what started out as a more reasonable approach quickly ballooned into a plan that will raise the state sales tax, car tax, regional sales tax, vehicle and tangible personal property taxes, vending machine tax, heavy equipment tax, recordation [sic] tax on commercial, industrial and residential real property sales, hotel tax, hybrid vehicle tax, and diesel fuel tax,” Black said.
While Black's commentary may seem excessive, it's essentially all fact. Highlights of HB 2313 include bumping the state sales tax .03 percent to 5.3 percent and implementing a 0.7 percent local sales tax for the clogged regions of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Two new fees will also be imposed – $64 annually for a hybrid or alternative fuel vehicle and a 4.15 percent vehicle titling tax. A new 15-cent-per-$100 value fee on real estate transactions in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads will also be implemented, as well and hotel taxes in these two regions will increase by 2 percent. All of these revenues – and a string of other collections – are estimated to raise approximately $3.5 billion in new transportation dollars in the next five years.
The failure of McDonnell to corral his Republican allies' support on the deal was negated, however, by a number of Democrats, specifically in Northern Virginia, desperate for something to fix the state's crumbling and congested road network.
In the Republican-led House of Delegates, the final plan passed on a 64-35 bipartisan roll, and the vote was 26-12 in the evenly-divided Senate.
“This plan is by no means perfect, but I am elected to take tough votes and solve problems on behalf of my constituents and the citizens of our commonwealth,” Herring said. “ ... I have worked with members of both parties in both chambers of the General Assembly to find a long-term, sustainable solution to transportation in Virginia. That is what this plan will do ...”
The two men hoping to succeed McDonnell in Richmond, McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, the Republican attorney general, provided perhaps the starkest example of the strange transportation bill spectrum.
While the Democrat McAuliffe immediately praised the Republican governor for his willingness to compromise and put transportation reform on the books, the conservative Cuccinelli questioned the bill's constitutionality and repeatedly labeled it a tax behemoth.
“In these tough economic times, I don't believe Virginia's middle class families can afford massive tax increases,” Cuccinelli said after the pre-amendment bill passed, “and I cannot support legislation that would ask the taxpayers to shoulder an even heavier burden than they are already carrying, especially when the government proposes to do so little belt tightening in other areas of the budget.”
In a state as geographically and politically diverse as Virginia, it's not uncommon for specific issues and pieces of legislation to swarm in and out of party lines.
But to recall a measure of this magnitude that split either side of the aisle is a challenge, veteran Del. Joe May (R-33rd) said. May stopped short of calling this year's political divide unprecedented, but he couldn't reflect on a similar scenario off the top of his head.
"I think it speaks to how important this issue is,” May said. “In the end, enough delegates decided this is what's best for the commonwealth.”
May and his GOP colleague Tom Rust (R-86th), often seen as the Northern Virginia's transportation tandem in the House of Delegates, both fiercely supported HB 2313.
"For 12 years I have fought hard to maintain and secure funding for our distressed infrastructure,” Rust stated in an email. “Now ... that work has culminated in a sustainable, long-term solution crafted out of compromise, collaboration and bipartisanship.”
Local Republicans joining Rust and May in green-lighting the transportation bill were Dels. Tag Greason (R-32nd), Randy Minchew (R-10th) and Jim LeMunyon (R-67th).
To recap, of the nine Republicans representing a portion of Loudoun County in the General Assembly, five sided with GOP governor and four dissented on HB 2313; the two Democrats, Herring and Favola, supported it.
While the 2013 transportation vote could have consequences for any of Loudoun's nine delegates, two in particular have been targeted by their challengers specifically for their support of McDonnell's legacy item.
May, a 20-year incumbent, is staring down a primary foe in anti-tax, anti-Dulles rail crusader David LaRock, and Ramadan, who represents a district that went heavily for President Obama in 2012, is already seeing a barrage of attacks from his Democratic challenger, John Bell.
"I think [Ramadan] made a bad vote … he put political ideology above his constituents,” Bell said.
The Democrat said Ramadan's all-or-nothing approach does a disservice to people in the 87th District. “When it's all-or-nothing, a lot of times you end up with nothing,” Bell said, adding that transportation is one of the most significant issues in the southern Loudoun and part-Prince William district.
Ramadan stands by his vote, largely echoing the comments from Sen. Black that HB 2313 is one of the largest tax increases in Virginia history.
“We need tax reform, not a massive tax hike. Northern Virginia needs our fair share of the current tax revenues, not additional taxes imposed on our region,” Ramadan stated.
LaRock has consistently hit May with attacks. An April 4 email from LaRock's campaign carried the subject line, “LaRock appalled by May's continued support of tax hikes.”
"It is disheartening that Del. May ignored what the people who elected him wanted and sided with liberals who want more taxes and more government,” LaRock said.
Moreover, LaRock isn't convinced the new revenues will do anything to ease the commonwealth's transportation crisis, but instead the money will go toward “economic development” projects like the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project, widening I-64 between Newport News and Williamsburg and building the Coalfields Expressway in southwest Virginia.
But May points to the fact that more than 60 percent of the Republican-majority General Assembly membership were in favor of HB 2313.
“I'm certainly not in favor of taxes, but this is an issue that we haven’t adequately addressed for a long time,” May said. “I voted for what I felt was best for the commonwealth.”