Special In What Way?
While most Virginians are probably enjoying the summer in a leisurely way, their state legislature is back in session.
Some may not realize that this is a citizen legislature that is only active for a couple of months each winter.
We spend most of the year in our own homes living under the laws that we have approved, just like everyone else.
But, occasionally, we are called back to the capitol building in Richmond to handle things of an exceptional nature.
These special sessions, while once rare, have occurred with more frequency over the past decade.
During that same period of time, we have even had to extend our 45-day to 60-day regular sessions by a few days.
Invariably, these have been due to fiscal questions relating to transportation spending. That is why we are here now.
In May, Governor Tim Kaine called this special session to start on June 23 specifically to address transportation.
He asked the General Assembly to deal with two main problems: First, there is a mounting statewide road maintenance deficit of $375 million.
Next is a $500 million loss of revenue approved last year for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads regional transportation plans.
That was caused when the Virginia Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the taxing powers of unelected regional transportation authorities.
The Governor has proposed a plan to raise an additional $1 billion in taxes to cover these problems and add new transit funding.
His plan would raise vehicle registration fees by $10 and add 1-percent to the sales tax here and in Hampton Roads.
It would also increase the motor vehicle sales tax by 1-percent and raise the grantor’s tax paid by home sellers by $0.25 per $100 of value.
These latter two taxes are problematic because they hit two sectors of the economy that are facing severe problems: auto sales and real estate.
General Assembly Republicans also oppose, by and large, any statewide increase in taxes for transportation.
Some in the GOP would vote against any tax increases, while those in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads seem open to new taxes only in their regions.
Some House Republicans have proposed using tolls, particularly on bridges and tunnels in Hampton Roads, to finance new construction.
Senate Democrats, now in the majority, generally support a proposal championed by their leader, Senator Saslaw.
To pay for maintenance needs, his plan would raise fuel taxes by 1-cent a year for the next six years, increase the sales tax by ¼-cent, and the motor vehicle sales tax by ½-cent.
For Northern Virginia road and rail projects, his plan increase sales taxes by ½-cent, establishes a $5 per night lodging tax, and raises the grantor’s tax by $0.40 per $100.
House Democrats, facing re-election next year, are generally leery of any gas tax increase, as is Governor Kaine.
Rigid or Flexible?
The Democratic House leader introduced the Governor’s bill in the House with 26 other Democratic co-sponsors.
He also had nine Democratic Senate co-sponsors. Yet, no Senator has agreed to sponsor the Governor’s bill in that chamber.
Governor Kaine stated that he is open to signing any bill that addresses the transportation revenue shortfalls, whether it is his plan or not.
Speaker Bill Howell and other GOP House leaders say that they will not even consider the Governor’s bill until the Democratic controlled Senate passes a plan.
The Speaker also increased the rural membership of the House Finance Committee before the special session.
The makes that committee more hostile to any tax increase and he assigned the Governor’s bill to the Rules Committee, which he chairs.
When I look at everything that has happened in this special session so far, a transportation scene comes to mind.
I am reminded of the silent movie scene of the two steam locomotives running head-on into each other on a railroad trestle.
Yes, this looks more and more like a train wreck. The real questions are: who picks up the pieces and will there be anything left to put together?