The state capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

RICHMOND – Just hours before the General Assembly reconvened its regular session Wednesday to act on the nearly 150 pieces of legislation that Gov. Glenn Youngkin either amended or vetoed, a Senate panel by a 12-3 vote killed a proposal that would have suspended Virginia’s gas tax for three months, dealing a major blow to a significant component in Youngkin’s plan to provide short term tax relief to Virginians struggling with climbing fuel prices. 

The Senate Finance Committee, which Democrats control with a 11-5 majority, weighed the measure introduced during special session earlier this month by Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County. The proposal sought to suspend the state’s 26.2 cents per gallon tax beginning May 1 restoring it incrementally in August while capping future increases for inflation. 

Only one Republican – Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, joined the 11 Democrats in rejecting the bill that passed the House Appropriations Committee last week by a 12-10 party line vote. 

Speaking to his measure, Newman told the committee that it would have provided help to all working Virginians. “This is an item that is sometimes difficult for a committee like us to grasp, because when I look around I imagine that everyone up here would probably be OK if the bill passed or didn’t pass. But that’s not true of every working Virginian,” he said.

Newman pointed out that as of Wednesday, the average gas price in Virginia edged $4 a gallon, with Diesel at $4.89 a gallon – an increase of almost 100% since January of last year. “Considering inflation, if this bill was to pass, the average family would save approximately $100. Are there other ways to do that? Certainly, but that’s what this proposal does,” he said.

Among several Virginians to speak in favor of Newman’s measure was Loretta Green, a self-proclaimed “carpool mom” from Alexandria. “We are feeling the sting of inflation, it is now double to fill up the tank,” Green told the panel. “Virginia families and small businesses need relief. We have a surplus and we need to use this surplus to help Virginia families. 

And Susan Hannah, a disabled veteran living on a fixed income, said that the higher gas prices affected her ability to get care at the nearest VA hospital. “I ask to at least consider putting a temporary hold on the gas tax,” she said.

But Democrats remained skeptical of the Republican proposal. Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax County, the committee chair, reiterated that Democrats would rather send rebate checks to families as a more impactful way to provide immediate relief.

Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, a member of the panel, said that he was concerned that in light of inflation the tax kick-back to consumers would impede the state’s ability to maintain its roadways, in particular Interstate 81. 

“Given the fact that it’s costing more to build roads, how do you fix 81? It’s going to take 10 years and if we have a little bit of extra money, shouldn’t we put it into doing it faster and quicker?” Edwards said. “How are we going to fix 81 if the costs are going up in the free market system, if we are going to cut back on the money that they need to fix the roads?”

Jason Stanford, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, told the panel that when combined with the nearly $800 million in lost revenue from eliminating the grocery tax, the gas tax suspension and the cap of future increases would result in a “disastrous loss” of more than $1.7 billion in Virginia transportation funding in the next six years. 

“This loss of revenue will have a real world impact across all modes of transportation, including roadways, transit, rail, bike and pedestrian, ports, airport and transportation technology infrastructure,” Stanford said, adding that weighed with the limited benefits of less than 50 cents a day for every driver, the long-term cost of the proposal “clearly outweighs the benefits.”

Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said in an email that by rejecting the proposal, Senate Democrats showed that they are “completely out of touch” with Virginians. “Refusing to lower gas prices in Virginia is a direct affront to the millions in the commonwealth who are experiencing increased cost of living across the board. This is deeply disappointing for all those who expect their elected representatives to work on their behalf, not against it,” Porter said.  

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.