McDonnell's roads proposal isn't perfect, but it's a start [Virginian - Pilot]
(Virginian - Pilot Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) FINALLY, GOV. BOB McDonnell has acknowledged what nearly everyone has been saying for years:
The state needs more money to handle our growing transportation problems. Stealing from the construction budget to cover maintenance is a lousy substitute.
So are tolls and an overreliance on debt.
This week, McDonnell released a bold plan that includes eliminating the state's gas tax, stuck at 17.5 cents a gallon since 1987, and boosting the sales and use tax from 5 cents to 5.8 cents on the dollar. The extra money would be dedicated to transportation.
The comprehensive proposal includes raising vehicle registration fees by $15 and dedicating more of the current sales tax money to roads. Backers also hope that Congress - the antithesis of cooperation - will pass legislation forcing online retailers to collect taxes made through their sites, and then send those dollars to Virginia.
The governor's plan, if all the elements passed, would raise $3.1 billion over five years. Administration officials said Virginia would become the first state to eliminate the gas tax.
It's a starting point for debate, which should be expected given the surprises McDonnell unveiled. He formerly had been loath to consider tax increases.
Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton and Martin Kent, the governor's chief of staff, said the administration is trying to navigate philosophical and political differences among legislators.
"This is not an easy nut to crack," Connaughton said during a conference call with journalists.
On balance, there's a lot to like in the plan. But that can't mask its shortcomings:
* Given the depths of the transportation shortfall, why not phase out the gas tax gradually The gas tax still brings in lots of revenue, even though it hasn't kept up with inflation.
* And why should motorists driving through the state essentially get a free pass at the gas pumps Highway experts also say the elderly and others who don't drive would pay more for infrastructure they barely use.
* The plan solves the state's systemic challenges, but - surprise! - it doesn't fund major road projects in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.
* It's simply not acceptable to drain sales tax dollars from other core services to bolster transportation. For example, Virginia ranks 48th in per-capita spending on Medicaid.
Already, folks across the political spectrum have criticized the proposal.
Some House Republicans, including those who signed the anti-tax pledge with Americans for Tax Reform, contend it's an untenable increase. Republicans backing the governor's proposal, including House Speaker William Howell, contend the plan is "revenue neutral."
Democrats don't want other core state services targeted.
It's interesting that McDonnell waited until his final year as governor to offer a plan that provides new transportation money - not just debt or tolls.
Politically, it's smarter because he won't face the same recriminations while in office. But Virginians could have used that leadership earlier in his tenure.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said McDonnell didn't act sooner because he had national ambitions and "didn't want to be associated with anything that could be called a tax increase."
Now it's time for legacy-building, Sabato said.
A tough nut to crack, indeed.
Roger Chesley, 757-446-2329, email@example.com, pilotonline.com/chesley, www.facebook.com/RogerChesley
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