RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin has pledged to suspend the most recent increase in the gas tax for 12 months as part of his “Day One Game Plan” to reduce the cost of living in Virginia.
That message seemed to resonate with voters, who narrowly handed Youngkin the Executive Mansion in tight race against Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
“Prices are so high. It’s your money and I want you to keep more in your pocket, particularly as we come through this pandemic,” Youngkin told a crowd of voters at an event last month. “We’ve watched the left, liberal leadership in Richmond just over tax Virginians an extraordinary amount.”
But as many hope for urgent relief at the pump, Youngkin’s proposal still needs to win legislative approval in a divided government.
It comes as a new report from the state’s non-partisan watchdog agency suggests recent fuel tax increases–while politically unpopular–may be paying off.
The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission told lawmakers on Monday that recent changes have addressed near and longer-term funding concerns.
JLARC said transportation system needs were previously projected to outpace revenue. The report said, prior to 2020, necessary road and transit maintenance were expected to exceed allocated funding by $300 million per year. Meanwhile, fuel tax revenue had plateaued and was anticipated to drop overtime.
In response, the General Assembly passed a massive transportation bill in the 2020 session. Among other measures, it approved a phased increase to the state gas tax, expanded regional fuel taxes, indexed future fuel taxes to inflation and created new user fees.
“Without the tax increases, the state would eventually have to settle for roads and transit systems that were not in as good condition as they are today. It would also be less able to address congestion, safety, and other problems on roads, and would not be able to build out passenger rail as is being planned,” JLARC Project Lead Mark Gribbin clarified in an email on Tuesday.
According to Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine’s office, phase two of the gas tax increase that took effect on July 1, 2021 is anticipated to result in approximately $200 million in additional revenue. Over the six-year programming period, that would be about $1.2 billion.
Asked if that money is needed, Gribbin wrote, “I would note that literally everyone in transportation that we talked to–national, state, regional, and local, public and private–said there were way more projects to do than there is funding to do them, even after the increase in state funding. No one said there was too much money.”
Democratic House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, who sponsored the transportation bill, said suspending the latest gas tax increase could derail recent progress.
“Of course I’m concerned that there is any suggestion that we might be moving backwards. I’m hopeful, however, that we can continue along the path that Democrats have set,” Filler-Corn said in an interview.
Del. Ken Plum didn’t vote for or against the bill in its final reading.
“If we had talked six years ago, I would’ve said we’re in deep trouble because we didn’t have adequate funding for our transportation,” Plum said. “It would be a major mistake to limit our transportation funding at a time where we are making such real progress.”
The omnibus transportation bill passed with some bipartisan support in the Senate in 2020 but won no Republican support in the House of Delegates. While two key races look headed for a recount, it appears the GOP will control the chamber in the 2022 session.
The JLARC presentation seemed to change some minds, including Republican Del. Terry Austin.
“I owe the Speaker an apology for not voting in favor of House Bill 1414,” Austin said to the panel of lawmakers. “Going forward, we are in a good posture for transportation to be funded and sustainable.”
Youngkin’s plan will have to win approval in the state Senate, which is narrowly controlled by Democrats.
Sen. Janet Howell, who chairs the influential Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, declined to be interviewed about Youngkin’s tax cut proposals. She said she doesn’t have enough information yet to comment.
However, Howell did express general caution about the road ahead during the JLARC presentation after what she admitted were politically difficult decisions.
“I hope nothing happens in the next few years that would set us back again because once you get behind it’s much more painful to get back into a good situation,” Howell said.
Youngkin was not available for an interview on Tuesday.