Lawmakers still haven’t agreed on a form of relief from high gas prices. (NBC12)
Democrats in the Virginia Senate voted Wednesday to reject Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposal for a gas tax holiday, a sign the governor hasn’t succeeded in getting skeptics on board with the plan he rolled out six weeks ago.
The Senate Finance Committee’s 12-3 vote to block the bill won’t be the final say on the matter. A version of the bill remains alive on the Republican House of Delegates, and the two parties could also put some form of gas-price relief in the overdue state budget that’s still being negotiated.
But it’s becoming clear the plan isn’t going to happen under the timeline suggested by Youngkin, who wants to fully suspend the gas tax from May 1 through July 31 before phasing it back in in August and September.
Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, the committee chairwoman, opened Wednesday’s meeting with a speech dismissing the proposal as ill-advised, saying it would lead to “additional funding challenges for the commonwealth’s transportation programs.”
Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, drew laughs in the room as he stepped up to the podium and acknowledged the futility of pitching the idea to lawmakers whose opposition was already clear.
“What a pleasure to be here,” Newman joked.
The suspension of the 26-cent per gallon gas tax would cost the state about $437 million in revenue, money Republicans say would help struggling Virginians get where they need to go without having to pay as much as the pump.
“As I look around this committee, I imagine that everyone up here will probably be OK if the bill passed or didn’t pass,” Newman said. “That’s not true of every working Virginian.”
Democrats, transit proponents, environmental advocates and road builders have argued the benefits to average Virginia drivers would be minimal, while the long-term costs of lost transportation dollars would be steep.
Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said some roads in Northern Virginia are in the worst shape he’s ever seen.
“There’s only one reason that the condition of the roads look the way they are today. Money,” Saslaw said. “They don’t have the money. And quite frankly, my feeling is we shouldn’t take one penny from that.”
Democrats hold a 21-19 majority in the Senate, an advantage they’ve used to block several big-ticket initiatives pushed by Youngkin, including other proposed tax cuts.
Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, who has voiced concerns about some of the budgetary impacts of Youngkin’s proposals, voted with Democrats Wednesday to oppose the gas-tax bill.
Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, a maverick who occasionally breaks with Democrats to support policies he deems commonsensical, also opposed the bill. The real problem, he said, is inflation affecting the price of everything, not just gas.
“I just simply don’t think that a gas tax holiday makes a difference,” Petersen said. “I really don’t.”
Speaking to reporters at the Capitol after the vote, Youngkin reiterated his belief that the state has enough transportation dollars it can afford to “give Virginians a break when they need it most.”
“I’m really disappointed that Democrats don’t see that,” Youngkin said. “And they continue to think it’s their money.”
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