Virginia transportation bill changed to satisfy constitutionality claims

The changes cut the new hybrid car fee from $100 per year to $64, among others. Photo: Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Gov. Bob McDonnell has amended the transportation funding reform bill that stands as his signature legislative achievement, extending regional taxing authority beyond Virginia's urban areas to other areas statewide in an effort to satisfy concerns about its constitutionality.

The Republican governor also amended other 2013 General Assembly bills to prohibit abortion coverage through the federal healthcare exchange that will serve Virginia and clarify requirements for expanding Medicaid in Virginia.

He also signed into law a bill requiring voters to bring photo identification to the polls starting next year.

McDonnell finished work on the bills shortly before his Monday midnight deadline to act on 812 bills passed during the legislative session that ended Feb. 23. Since then, the governor signed 727 bills into law, amended 80 and vetoed six.

The House and Senate reconvene for a single day on April 3 to consider McDonnell's actions on this year's legislation. A majority of 51 delegates in the 100-member House and 21 members of the 40-seat Senate is necessary to reject a gubernatorial amendment, but two-thirds majorities in each chamber are required to override a veto.

In perhaps his most consequential amendment, McDonnell attempted to square the legislation with a ruling from Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli on Friday that imposing regional tax increases violates Virginia's Constitution. In a statement, Cuccinelli said a preliminary review shows the governor satisfied his constitutional concerns.

McDonnell did it by applying the law allowing for regional taxing authorities statewide to any planning district commission meeting population, vehicle count and transit ridership thresholds and not limiting it to northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, the state's most traffic-choked regions.

"You can't just outright name regions," McDonnell said of his amendment Tuesday during his monthly radio call-in show on WTOP radio in Washington, D.C.

The regional taxing authorities took shape in January and February en route to a fragile bipartisan compromise that resulted in passage of the first comprehensive and continuing solution to Virginia's ebbing transportation fund in more than a generation.

McDonnell also offers amendments to ease costs on residents of the teeming suburbs of Washington and Tidewater. They would trim a fee on fuel-stingy hybrid cars most popular in the affluent suburbs from $100 a year to $64, cut the transient occupancy tax paid on hotel stays from 3 percent to 2 percent, and reduce a "regional congestion relief fee" applied to real estate values by about 40 percent.

The congestion relief fee, intended to generate about $30 million annually, was set at 25 cents per $100 of assessed property value in the legislation as enacted, but McDonnell said the figure was based on errant data and that 15 cents per $100 would generate the revenue. For the owner of a home valued at $500,000 and subject to the congestion relief fee, McDonnell's correction would lower the levy from $1,250 a year to $750.

Other actions reduce the titling tax paid at the purchase of a car from the 4.3 percent the bill specified to 4.15 percent.

His efforts to salvage the measure to muster more than $1 billion a year from statewide and regional funding sources to address a growing backlog of deferred highway projects won bipartisan praise. But Democrats included a barb to Cuccinelli, who opposed the transportation bill.

"I applaud Governor McDonnell for once again overcoming last minute roadblocks thrown up by those who prefer extreme gridlock," presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe said in a slap at Cuccinelli, who's unopposed for the GOP nomination.

Democrats, however, and reproductive rights advocates expressed outrage at the amendment that could deprive middle-class women of coverage for abortions in policies purchased through the federal exchange that would serve Virginia under terms of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

McDonnell copied and pasted a provision from a law passed in 2011 that forbade a health care exchanged funded and operated by the state from offering coverage for abortion services. But Virginia chose to forgo its own exchange, leaving it to the federal government to operate Virginia's exchange - a forum where people and households who don't have private or employer-sponsored coverage can choose among policies and providers.

Caroline O'Shea of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia said McDonnell's decision not only interferes with a woman's ability to make decisions regarding her health and pregnancy with her doctor, it interferes with an individual's ability to buy insurance coverage with their own money.

"This amendment denies private insurance companies the ability to supply, and individuals the right to demand, comprehensive health care," added Cianti Stewart-Reid, Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia.

Victoria Cobb of the conservative advocacy group Family Foundation defended McDonnell, saying his amendment complies with the federal Hyde Amendment and protects taxpayers "from being forced to subsidize elective abortion through these exchanges."

The photo ID voter law takes effect in the 2014 elections, when voters decide on all 11 of the state's congressional seats and the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democratic Sen. Mark R. Warner. In addition to signing the bill, McDonnell issued an executive order compelling the State Board of Election to begin a public information campaign to let voters know how to comply with the law.

Republicans say the measure discourages voter fraud while Democrats decry it as a return to Jim Crow-era voter suppression tactics against the elderly, poor and minorities.

McDonnell added 52 amendments to the state's budget. Among them is an additional $2.1 million to fill several vacant judgeships, $2 million for teacher incentive pay and $2 million for a call center to help answer questions from Medicaid recipients.

He also more closely defined cost-saving and efficiency reforms to be achieved before a special commission will approve the expansion of Medicaid to about 400,000 Virginians just above the poverty line. Like the regional transportation taxing provisions, Cuccinelli had also ruled the Medicaid expansion provision unconstitutional.

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