Saturday, February 23, 2013

Governor's transportation initiative closer to passage

The House of Delegates passed the transportation bill Friday, but the Senate postponed its vote.

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    From The Roanoke Times

    RICHMOND — A carefully crafted compromise to pump new money into Virginia's cash-starved transportation system inched closer to passage in the General Assembly on Friday, winning bipartisan support in the House of Delegates.

    But the evenly divided Senate postponed a vote on the bill as Democrats sought a written assurance that Gov. Bob McDonnell would not stand in the way of a separate deal setting terms for an expansion of Medicaid. The delay pushed critical votes on the transportation bill and the state budget to today, which is scheduled to be the final day of the 2013 legislative session.

    "There's some dissatisfaction with the transportation plan anyway, so it's key that we have that Medicaid expansion" agreement, said Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax County, a Senate budget negotiator.

    The transportation bill is a top priority for McDonnell, looking to seal a legacy in the final year of his term. The plan passed Friday by the House would pump $3.5 billion into roads, rail and transit over the next five years and prevent rising maintenance costs from depleting the state's highway construction budget.

    McDonnell, a Republican, also has been adamant about not expanding eligibility for Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, insisting first on cost-cutting reforms in the state-federal program. In a Friday evening letter to Senate Republican Leader Thomas Norment, R-James City County, McDonnell commended negotiators for the Medicaid compromise, but stopped short of promising not to alter it when the budget reaches his desk.

    The federal health care law expands Medicaid eligibility to adults with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level beginning next year, but allows states to opt out. The federal government will cover the full cost of the expansion for three years before gradually reducing its contribution to 90 percent.

    The budget provision would allow Virginia to expand Medicaid eligibility if it receives federal approval for reforms to improve service delivery and reduce costs. It calls for the creation of a legislative commission that would be authorized to expand enrollment in Medicaid once reforms are implemented. The panel would consist of five senators, five House members and two nonvoting Cabinet secretaries.

    In his letter, McDonnell commended negotiators for coming up with "a concept to ensure that significant reforms are attained prior to any expansion of Medicaid." And, the governor noted, the provision would allow Virginia to pull back from expansion if the federal government retreats from its funding commitment.

    Earlier in the day, the House passed the transportation bill by a vote of 60-40. The multifaceted plan would scrap Virginia's 17.5 cents per gallon tax on gasoline and apply a 3.5 percent tax on the wholesale price of fuel and a 6 percent tax on the wholesale price of diesel fuel.

    The package also would increase the retail sales tax from 5 percent to 5.3 percent, increase the vehicle sales tax from 3 percent to 4.3 percent, and dedicate a greater portion of the existing sales tax to transportation. The plan also creates a dedicated source for rail funding, which could speed the extension of Amtrak service to Roanoke.

    Democrat Onzlee Ware of Roanoke, independent Lacey Putney of Bedford and Republicans Chris Head of Botetourt County, Charles Poindexter of Franklin County and Joseph Yost of Blacksburg voted for the compromise. Republicans Greg Habeeb of Salem and Nick Rush of Christiansburg voted against it.

    Ware helped negotiate the compromise and took the House floor Friday to rally support for the bill.

    "If you want to be a leader down here, sometimes you've got to stand up against all the obvious odds and just do what's right," Ware said.

    "Everybody in here today is exactly feeling what you ought to feel — pain," Ware said. "Because nobody is getting exactly everything they want, nor should you get everything you want. But it's not about you individually. It's about the state."

    Del. Dave Albo, R-Fairfax County, pleaded with his colleagues to support a bill that could help ease congestion in his traffic-choked region and replenish a road construction budget that could depleted by rising maintenance costs as early as 2017.

    "There is not one penny to put a stoplight in in the entire state of Virginia," he said. "There is not one penny to put a turn lane in. There is not one penny to put a little cut on a sidewalk so handicapped people can get from one side to the other. That's how bad it is."

    The plan was backed by House Speaker Bill Howell, R-Stafford County, but Friday's vote reflected Republican division over the plan. Thirty-four GOP delegates voted for the bill and 33 voted against it. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the likely GOP candidate for governor, labeled the plan a "massive tax increase" on Thursday.

    Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge County, said the plan abandoned a GOP principle " that we're not going to reach into the pockets of our constituents during one of the most fragile economic recessions that we've seen and ask them to pay more."

    "I hear my colleagues say, 'We've got to do something, we've got to do something,'" Cline said in the House floor debate. "Well, this bill does something. But I will tell you it's the wrong thing when it comes to Virginia's economic success."

    Habeeb said in an interview that he voted against the bill because the tax changes didn't come with reforms.

    "Without that reform, I think it's just additional money put into a broken system," he said.

    Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, voted for the bill, warning his colleagues from rural areas that they could lose transportation funds to more populated regions if lawmakers failed to take steps to help Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

    "I won't sugarcoat it — this is a tough vote," Kilgore said. "But when it comes down to it, we have an opportunity — an opportunity that's gotten away from us for 20 years."

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