Posts about Republicans
We knew there would be some nutty proposals in the Virginia legislature this year, and some serious attempts to fix transportation funding, but Governor Bob McDonnell managed to stun everyone yesterday with a real doozy: eliminate the gas tax entirely. Seriously.
Virginia sorely needs money for transportation. While McDonnell is borrowing $3 billion from the future to fund a few mega-road projects (many also unnecessary and wasteful), there isn't enough money to keep maintaining existing roads and bridges, or fund 8-car trains on Metro to relieve Rush Plus overcrowding, or build light rail Northern Virginia needs.
Virginia's gas tax is also one of the lowest in the nation. It brings in less money per gallon of gas, adjusted for inflation, than anytime in history, and is less than half in real dollars what it was in 1933. That's why a lot of Virginia legislators are calling for real action on transportation this year.
Even a few Republicans are maybe interested in finding a tortured path around their promises not to ever raise taxes, like Delegate Dave Albo's not-entirely-insane idea to raise the gas tax but give Virginia residents an income tax break to offset it.
Jim Titus suggested Virginia consider a variant of a proposal Maryland debated last year, to extend some or all of the sales tax to gasoline instead of raising the gas tax. Gas is exempt from the sales tax, which means that while the gas tax raises some revenue, the state's general fund loses the revenue that would have come from taxing the sale of that gas just like it taxes housewares or computers or anything else.
McDonnell's plan takes the opposite tack. He would eliminate the gas tax entirely, but also keep exempting gas from the sales tax. He said, "That's right, no more gas tax at the pump. No sales tax at the pump either."
The state would then collect no money at all on people buying gas, even though it collects money from people buying most anything else. It even has a sales tax on groceries, unlike DC and Maryland. This means you would pay something for buying grapes and ginger but not gasoline.
But wait, isn't McDonnell's plan a transportation funding plan? McDonnell would then raise the sales tax by 0.8 cents on the dollar. This would bring in $183 million a year by 2018, but less now. Meanwhile, many people say the state needs about $1 billion a year for transportation. Fairfax County alone says they need $300 million a year. The Washington Post calls the revenue from this plan "paltry."
Governor McDonnell proposes dedicating the first $300 million the sales tax raises to the Silver Line. He's certainly doing this to try to win the votes of northern Virginia legislators. But the state should already have been providing at least $500 million or more for this project years ago. McDonnell, instead, withheld the money and now is trying to use it as a bargaining chip.
This is insane
This is not just a silly proposal or, like most from the tax-phobic Virginia Republicans, ineffective. It's actually deeply harmful.
While it raises a small amount of revenue, it more significantly shifts the burden of paying for transportation away from people using transportation and onto everyone. Don't have a car? Except for the car tax, you will still pay for Virginia roads as much as everyone else. Live close to your job? Too bad, you pay the same as someone with a 50-mile commute.
It's notable that McDonnell didn't propose making transit free. If we're talking radical ideas, how about that? It's a close equivalent to having no gas tax, as road users pay some (but not all) the cost of road maintenance through the gas tax (and Virginia covers other costs with revenue from other sources), and transit users pay some (but not all) the cost of transit through fares.
Virginia's gas taxes also have a regional impact. Some people already prefer to buy gasoline in Virginia versus DC or Maryland because it's cheaper. If Virginia goes for McDonnell's idea, the gap between Virginia gas prices and DC and Maryland gas prices would widen. More people would buy gas in Virginia. Some would even drive out of their way to go to a gas station in Virginia, making traffic even worse.
But for all that, the state wouldn't even benefit one bit. When Virginia steals companies away from DC and Maryland with corporate tax breaks, it's a net loss for the whole region, but at least from Virginia's point of view there's an upside in that they get other revenue. This doesn't have an upside, except possibly a very tenuous general attraction for a few people to live in Virginia because of the gas taxes; but if any of those people exist, they drive a lot, meaning they'll worsen traffic for everyone else.
Besides the sales tax, there are a few other elements to the proposal.
It would raise vehicle registration fees by $15 per year and allocate 50% to transit and 50% to intercity rail, raising about $109 million per year. The latter portion would fund commitments the state has already made for expanded Virginia Amtrak service.
Another element is to charge alternative fuel vehicles $100 per year. McDonnell's argument is that since these use less gas, they should contribute to the costs of road maintenance. But it's particularly ironic that he's looking to have these vehicles pay for road maintenance while exempting regular gas-guzzlers.
Finally, McDonnell is hoping Congress will pass the Marketplace Equity Act, which lets states charge sales taxes on online purchases. But it's very dubious to count on this bill, as observers think it has only a small chance of passing. Plus, absent the Governor's plan, this bill could give Virginia money it also needs for education, public safety, and other priorities.
McDonnell has somehow managed to come up with one of the worst transportation funding plans conceivable. It's even worse than doing nothing, and doing nothing should not be an option. The legislature needs to laugh him out of the room and either come up with something better, or hope that the next governor has better sense.
The House GOP couldn't pass a transportation bill of their own, so now they want to undo one of the major bi-partisan achievements in the Senate transportation bill.
As part of its counter-offer to the Senate in conference committee negotiations over the transportation bill, the House appears to be proposing the elimination of the Cardin-Cochran amendment, which would allow local jurisdictions to control funds for bike/ped projects.
The House proposal, sent to the Senate yesterday, would would effectively block access to bike/ped funding for many towns, cities, and regions located in states where the department of transportation places a low priority on street safety.
Politico Pro reported that House conferees confirmed that the first part of its counter to the Senate offer would "retain the Transportation Enhancements program's overall structure but would let states opt out." Transportation Enhancements is one of the principal funding mechanisms for bike/ped projects. Neither Politico nor Streetsblog has seen a copy of the couter-offer, so it's unclear exactly how the proposal is framed.
Initially, under the Senate's MAP-21 bill, TE was subsumed under a subset of the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program called "Additional Activities," which states could opt out of entirely. But thanks to a bi-partisan amendment crafted by Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran and Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, decision-making authority for those funds was devolved from states to local governments, which tend to place a higher priority on active transportation programs.
The House proposal appears to erase that progress.
"By allowing states to opt out of Additional Activities funding, the House counter-offer would prevent local governments from accessing funds for small-scale, local transportation projects," said Mary Lauran Hall, communications coordinator for America Bikes. "It pits state control against local control. We've heard from mayors and local elected officials across the country that they want funding for these projects. It doesn't make sense to take away the tiny portion of transportation dollars that trickle to local governments."
The House is expected to complete its counter-offer over the next few days.
Cross-posted at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.
In a move that should dispel any remaining thoughts that the House transportation bill will ever be signed into law, the Ways and Means Committee announced today that they will try to forbid gas tax revenue from funding transit.
The Ways & Means bill (PDF) would funnel all gas tax revenue toward road programs, redirecting billions of dollars per year away from transit, which for decades has received about 20% of fuel tax receipts.
Instead, the House GOP wants transit funding to come entirely from the general fund, pitting transit against all other government spending. To offset that spending, $40 billion would have to be cut from the rest of the federal budget.
Essentially, the House GOP is holding transit hostage to achieve budget cuts elsewhere Dan Smith of USPIRG put it like this: Cross-posted at Streetsblog DC.
The House Ways and Means Bill stops just short of defunding America's public transit system. Instead it says that the real money with a funding source will all go to highways, while the tooth fairy will pay for transit. For Big Oil and the highway lobby, this is a dream, but it's a nightmare for America's transportation future.In keeping with the secretive nature of the current House's transportation reauthorization process, the announcement comes just one day before Ways and Means will mark up the bill. There is even less time to protect transit funding in the House bill than there was to protect bike/ped programs in today's T&I markup.
Dan Smith of USPIRG put it like this:
Cross-posted at Streetsblog DC.
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