Transportation Money Shuffle

It’s not often that state transportation bills make national political news. But given Virginia’s proximity to Washington, and its hosting of a gubernatorial contest that will be one of the few hard-news political developments of the year, the bill heading to Gov. Bob McDonnell’s desk (where he is certain to sign it) is getting some serious ink.

Stewart Schwartz of Greater Greater Washington has plenty of detail on the bill (mostly from the perspective of traffic-strangled Northern Virginia). When I lived in the Commonwealth and commuted from central Virginia to DC, I used to wonder why people weren’t rioting over the insane congestion on I-95 and portions of the Beltway. Given the horrendous conditions and the reality of a Republican-controlled statehouse, Northern Virginians and supporters of public transportation unsurprisingly accepted somewhat less than half-a-loaf in the current bill in terms of transit money and the disproportionate expenditure of funds on rural highways where one could safely take a nap on the center line.

But the most notable feature of the bill is a big money-shuffle: the flat tax on gasoline and diesel fuel purchases would be replaced by a percentage sales tax on fuel sales, which will supposedly make it easier for revenues to track higher pump prices. There’s also an increase on sales tax generally, and at a higher level in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, where there’s local support for more transportation spending. And even more general revenue is diverted from other state needs into road-building than was already the case. Surprisingly enough in a state where Republicans for years made “no car tax” their main talking point, the tax on car sales was boosted. And on top of everything else, Virginia is imposing a new $100 annual tax on hybrid cars, on the twisted if technically accurate theory that because they consume less fuel, they aren’t bearing their fair share of road taxes.

Republicans were considerably more divided than Democrats on this bill, and their unopposed gubernatorial candidates, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, loudly opposed it (even as unopposed Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe supported it). An important side issue was that McDonnell agreed as part of the transportation deal to create a commission that could authorize expansion of Medicaid according to the provisions of the Affordable Care Act if certain “reforms” are certified as having been initiated. This is obviously unacceptable to Cuccinelli, but could lead to Medicaid coverage for 400,000 Virginians if McAuliffe wins the governorship this November.

It’s a sign of the times that it took accepting a Republican-leaning version of a transportation bill for Democrats to get relief from an ongoing transportation crisis–and to paint Cuccinelli yet again into an extremist corner where he’s going to find it very difficult to emulate McDonnell’s 2009 “Hey I’m not so crazy!” message.

UPDATE: Erick Erickson pretty much goes DefCon3 on McDonnell and the Republican legislators who voted for the transportation bill.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.