RICHMOND, Va. (AP) The gas tax would increase by a penny each of the next five years under legislation passed out of the Senate Feb. 15 that is expected to meet resistance in the House of Delegates.
The Senate voted 25-15 in favor of Senate Majority Leader Richard “Dick” Saslaw’s bill, which is expected to produce $52 million a year for every penny increase to maintain the state’s 58,000 mi. (93,000 km) of roadways.
Saslaw said the increase is needed to replace revenue that would be lost when legislators repeal the so-called abusive driver fees that were expected to bring in $65 million a year for road maintenance. Legislators are on the verge of repealing the high fees on bad drivers they passed last year after a backlash from voters angry that they apply only to Virginians.
Saslaw said the increase would wind up costing Virginia families “two Big Mac meals a year,” with change left over. Virginia’s 17.5 cent fuel tax hasn’t gone up since 1986.
“I wish that we were able to find contractors that would pour that asphalt for free,” said Saslaw, D-Fairfax County. “We have been unable to do that.”
For years the money needed to repair Virginia’s existing roads has increased, chipping away at the funds left over to build new ones. Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer has said the cost of maintenance for roads statewide this year would be about $260 million.
Legislators said gas prices fluctuate so much that Virginians wouldn’t even notice the increase.
“The pricing is so volatile right now I think it would be foolish on our part to say that a penny is going to impact their behavior or cause undue hardship,” said Sen. Emmett Hanger of Augusta County, one of four Republicans who voted for the increase.
Most Republicans said they couldn’t ask Virginians to pay more in taxes, especially when Gov. Timothy M. Kaine is asking for millions in his proposed budget to fund new initiatives like expanding pre-kindergarten education.
“It is disingenuous for us to plead poverty as a commonwealth in order to pass a gas tax increase while continuing to spend money hand over fist on new spending and new pet projects,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg.
Kaine scaled back his proposals and others Feb. 12, when he announced that state revenue collections through 2010 will come up nearly $1.4 billion short of earlier estimates, requiring sweeping budget cuts and a larger withdrawal from the state’s cash reserves.
Kaine said at the time that, given the softening economy, it would not the right time to ask Virginia families to pay more in taxes. The average Virginia family already pays $700 each year in state and federal gas taxes.
The legislation now goes to the Republican-controlled House, which has rejected efforts to raise the gas tax in the past.