Gov. Glenn Youngkin pumped gas in Henrico County in March to call attention to his new proposal for a 3-month gas tax holiday. (Photo by Graham Moomaw)
Virginia legislators took their first vote Tuesday on the gas tax holiday proposed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, nearly a month after the governor announced it and with the timeline for a final vote still up in the air.
In its first General Assembly hearing, the legislation cleared the House Finance Committee on a party-line vote. The 12 Republicans on the committee repeatedly overruled the 10 Democrats, rejecting Democrats’ alternative proposal for a $50 gas rebate per vehicle or up to $100 per household.
In an at-times snippy meeting, members of both parties professed their desire to help relieve some of the pain Virginia drivers are feeling from higher gas prices. But neither party appeared willing to step back from their preferred form of relief or attempt to find common ground. Even if Youngkin’s gas plan passed the Republican House, Democratic leaders in the Senate, where their party has a slight majority, have shown no sign they intend to pass it.
Near the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, the committee’s chairwoman, loudly banged her gavel to try to silence Del. Candi Mundon King, D-Prince William, who was accusing the Republican majority of stifling dissenting opinions from those “fighting for our communities.”
“And that voice is being shut down with procedural motions,” Mundon King said.
The meeting began with Democrats expressing bewilderment over Robinson’s announcement the committee would only hear 10 minutes of public testimony on the bill, which was the only item on the committee’s agenda and a top priority for Youngkin and the GOP.
Republicans suggested extensive public testimony was unnecessary because legislators had already heard plenty about the gas-tax proposal.
“If we don’t have limits, we don’t have any kind of order,” said Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford.
An unusual coalition of environmental groups, public transit advocates and roadbuilding interests testified against the gas tax holiday, saying it could jeopardize long-term transportation funding without providing much help to Virginia drivers. Supporters of the bill, several of whom presented themselves as struggling parents or small business owners, argued the focus on long-term budgetary health overlooks the financial hardship many Virginians face today.
Youngkin’s proposal calls for the full suspension of the 26.2-cents per gallon gas tax for May, June and July before phasing it back in during August and September. It would also limit how fast the gas tax rate could rise with inflation in future years, at a cost of roughly $40 million per year.
Speaking for the Youngkin administration, Transportation Secretary Shep Miller estimated the total cost of the gas-tax holiday at $470 million, which he said would amount to a roughly 3 percent reduction in total Commonwealth Transportation Fund revenues over a two-year budget period.
“We have an exceptional amount of revenue that we did not expect a couple years ago in the transportation plan,” Miller said. “Over six years it’s in the billions of dollars. And obviously the governor has made a pledge to try to get some of the revenue back to the citizens who have contributed it to the commonwealth.”
Democrats on the committee reiterated arguments that $50 rebates would bring more direct relief to Virginians, avoiding the issue of a gas tax cut benefitting out-of-state drivers buying gas in Virginia with less uncertainty about whether gas station owners would actually lower their prices.
“I think we all share an appreciation for the need to do something,” said Del. Rodney Willett, D-Henrico.
Armed with a chart showing two stacks of dollars, Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, argued $50 would be a better deal for the average Virginia driver than the Republican plan, which she said would only save the typical family about $11 per month while allowing “profit taking” by the gasoline industry since the tax is levied on distributors, not on consumers paying at the pump.
“I know that we’re all hurting in many, many ways because of inflation,” she said. “But the 11 dollars a month won’t feed anyone at McDonald’s. I know that.”
Republican lawmakers said they weren’t all that concerned about non-Virginians getting some benefit from cheaper gas in Virginia. If gas prices were lower, said Del. Joseph McNamara, R-Roanoke County, more travelers might stop to buy gas in Virginia while passing through.
“Which I think is great,” McNamara said. “Because then they can go buy a hot dog from the Virginia hot dog man. And they can go buy a stuffed animal from the convenience store. And they can buy ice cream if they happen to have ice cream at that gas station… All these things are helping Virginians from a revenue perspective.”
Before Republicans voted down the plan for $50 gas rebates, Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, noted that both legislative chambers already voted to send out bigger tax rebates unrelated to gas prices. The House budget, he noted, called for $300 rebates per individual filer, while the Senate budget envisions $250. If House Democrats wanted to offer more tax relief, he said, they could talk to “your friends down the hall and do exactly what you’re proposing.”
“With this advantage,” Ware said. “That it would require checks sent to millions of Virginians from one agency only. And not two.”
The vote Tuesday referred the bill to the House Appropriations Committee, which handles the still-unfinished state budget.
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