On Saturday, the Virginia General Assembly ended its session by passing a landmark transportation funding bill that would overhaul how Virginians pay for roads, highways and mass transit. The new plan would replace the 17.5 cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline—unchanged for 26 years—with a new 3.5 percent tax on motor fuels that would keep pace with inflation and growth. It allows for lawmakers to divert as much as $200 million in general fund revenue toward transportation instead of other services, and it charges a registration tax on hybrid, electric, and alternative fuel vehicles. Finally, it raises the state sales tax to 5.3 percent, and creates a special funding mechanism for the Hampton Roads area, where sales taxes are bumped to 6 percent to pay for regional transportation improvements.
Merits of the law aside (it all but subsidizes fuel inefficient vehicles), this was a huge political lift for Governor McDonnell. To get the support of state Democrats, he had to agree to expand Medicaid—in accordance with the Affordable Care Act—just months after announcing his intention to reject the expansion. He also had to contend with Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who announced his opposition to the transportation plan—citing its new taxes—and worked to shoot it down. "With Virginia families and business facing rising gas prices, increased regulatory burdens and taxes from the federal government," said the GOP gubernatorial candidate in a statement released before the bill's passage, "we cannot ask them to fund another enormous tax increase."
By contrast, Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe praised Governor McDonnell and the General Assembly for passing the bill, applauding its "bipartisan passage" and calling it a "mainstream transportation compromise."
There's no Kremlinology needed to understand the political posturing of both candidates. In a state which often reacts against the incumbent party in the White House, McAuliffe is working to position himself as a sensible moderate—an ally of Governor McDonnell, who just wants to get things done. Cuccinelli is playing to his reputation as a conservative bomb-thrower, railing against tax increases, even if Virginia needs new funds to update its aging transportation infrastructure.
Virginia's affinity for bland technocrats aside (see: Mark Warner's popularity), I think Cuccinelli has the stronger hand in this confrontation. Turnout is always key to winning elections, but it's especially crucial for McAuliffe, who has to deal with an off-year electorate that's older, whiter, and more conservative than the one that supported Barack Obama last year. Yes, McAuliffe is on the winner's side of the transportation fight, and that might improve his standing with Virginians. But it does nothing to improve Democratic enthusiasm, and it might harm it, given the extent to which commonwealth Democrats made big concessions to get Virginia on board with the Medicaid expansion.
Cuccinelli, on the other hand, gets to stand as a rebel—fighting the good fight against higher taxes and the state's political establishment. Sure, he lost the battle. But he can use this to energize supporters for the war. And as long as there are fewer voters at the polls—just under 2 million people voted in 2009, compared to 3.7 million the previous year—enthusiastic supporters who show up are worth more than ones satisfied at a job well-done.