Lawmakers to vote on gas-tax hikes, other Northam proposals

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia lawmakers are set to return to the state Capitol to vote on gas-tax hikes, a handheld cellphone ban for drivers and other vetoes and amendments proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam.
The one-day session could see the GOP-led General Assembly knock down some of Northam’s more noteworthy proposals while failing to overturn his vetoes.
The Democratic governor has been trying to recover since a blackface scandal almost forced him to resign two months ago. He’s won praise from black lawmakers for focusing his legislative agenda on efforts to address longstanding racial inequities.
But Republicans have signaled opposition to some of Northam’s other proposals.
Here’s some key legislation that will be debated Wednesday:
A plan with bipartisan support to put new tolls on Interstate-81 to pay for needed improvements failed earlier this year after facing opposition from trucking companies and manufacturers. Northam is now proposing to increase truck registration fees and regional gas tax increases to pay for those improvements.
The highway stretches 325 miles (523 kilometers) along the western part of the state and is heavily trafficked by tractor trailers. There are more than 2,000 crashes on the road each year, with more than a quarter involving heavy trucks. There are about 45 major crashes a year that take more than four hours to clear.
Northam said the improvements are urgently needed, but it’s unclear if there is enough support at the legislature for the plan.
Also up in the air is Northam’s plan to extend tax refunds to lower income Virginians. Lawmakers approved a plan to take a projected windfall generated by changes to federal tax laws and give refunds of up to $220 to taxpayers. Northam wants to increase the number of lower income taxpayers who qualify for refunds at a cost of about $18 million.
Northam faced widespread pressure to resign earlier this year after a racist photo surfaced in his medical school yearbook and Northam admitted to wearing blackface in the 1980s. Northam has denied that he’s in the picture and resisted calls for his resignation. He’s said he will focus his three remaining years in office on improving racial reconciliation in a state scarred by slavery and institutionalized discrimination.
Black lawmakers have praised a number of Northam proposals, including a budget amendment to increase funds for a state agency that aims to help minority-owned contractors.
Northam also wants to boost funding for affordable housing and eliminate the suspension of driver’s licenses for motorists with unpaid court fines and costs — a practice critics say disproportionately hurts African-Americans.
The governor also wants to ban motorists from holding cellphones, but with a provision that data be collected to make sure the ban isn’t used unfairly by law enforcement to target minorities. Republicans have indicated the governor’s proposal isn’t germane to the legislation it’s seeking to amend and is out of order.
Lawmakers may also take up several of Northam’s vetoes on legislation related to issues including gun rights and immigration. Overturning vetoes requires two-thirds votes, which Republicans don’t have.
Northam has vetoed legislation that would make it easier for nonresidents to get concealed handgun carry permits and a bill aimed at preventing so-called “sanctuary cities” from being established in the state.
The veto process has become an annual kabuki dance between the GOP-led General Assembly and a Democratic governor, designed largely to fire up each side’s political base.
Virginia is one of only four states having legislative elections this year and the only one where Democrats have a realistic chance of wresting control from Republicans.