RICHMOND, Va. -- The chances that a sweeping transportation reform package will emerge during this year's Virginia General Assembly session were greatly diminished Tuesday night when Senate Democrats killed repeated attempts by Republicans to forge a compromise.
With a midnight deadline looming, the evenly divided Senate fell short of the 21 votes needed to move a bill to the House of Delegates, with Democrats vowing to block any proposal that generated less than $1.2 billion a year in new roads money.
Gov. Bob McDonnell's plan to abolish the gas tax and raise the sales tax as part of a $3 billion transportation package is technically alive after passing the House earlier Tuesday in a narrow 53-46 vote. But that plan never gained traction in the Senate, and Democrats and Republicans there voted to kill the Senate version for the year.
That leaves in doubt the prospect that any comprehensive transportation funding reform will pass -- and reduces the chances for a legacy-defining legislative achievement for McDonnell.
"The fat lady didn't sing today, but she's warming up," said Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Springfield.
The Senate did pass a measure earlier in the day that would allow communities in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to create an income tax to fund local projects.
A frustrated McDonnell blasted Democrats for rejecting a plan that would have provided money for projects they have long held dear, including $300 million for a rail line to Washington Dulles International Airport.
"There is no defense for such an about-face," McDonnell said. "Clearly, this was all about partisanship, not policy."
Democrats, with help from two Republicans, also rejected a rival plan backed by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, dubbed the conservative alternative, that would have kept the sales tax at 5 percent and created a 5.5-cent sales tax on gasoline. But that proposal would have raised $800 million less than McDonnell's plan, and even the governor questioned if it would be enough money.
A last-ditch amendment from Hampton Roads Republicans to swap the 17.5-cent tax on a gallon of gas with an 8 or 9 percent sales tax on gasoline and diesel fuel mustered only seven votes. By 2018, it would have raised $962 million a year.
Democrats conceded it was a step in the right direction but said it wasn't enough, much to the ire of Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, who blamed the upcoming gubernatorial election for the obstruction.
"This isn't good enough? I'm sorry, it's a billion dollars," said Wagner, who proposed the amendment. "I'm here tonight to get a transportation bill passed, not to set up a campaign."