Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli has issued an opinion that the sweeping new transportation law passed by the legislature last month violates the state constitution by imposing different taxes on different localities.
The legislation, a modified version of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation spending plan, is projected to raise more than $800 million for transportation over the next five years by reducing Virginia’s per-gallon gasoline tax and instead imposing taxes on fuel wholesalers and diverting some state sales tax revenue to transportation. McDonnell and other supporters of the plan have said it could reduce Virginia’s reliance on debt for road construction and maintenance.
But the bill also raised some eyebrows by imposing some additional taxes in the commonwealth’s most populous regions, specifically the region just outside the nation’s Capitol and the Hampton Roads area in the south.
Del. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, asked Cuccinelli, a Republican running for governor, to investigate the constitutionality of those taxes and issue an opinion.
The attorney general said that although the state constitution does not forbid different levels of taxation in different parts of the state, singling out regions without respect to specific characteristics does so. Other regions also share some of those same characteristics, his opinion addressed to Marshall states.
“Given the inherent differences in the localities that make up the two groupings and the similarities that some of the localities necessarily share with localities outside of the groupings, it is unlikely that the classification here passes constitutional muster,” Cuccinelli wrote.
Though his letter goes on to state that the opinion makes no judgment on the policy underlying the transportation bill, Cuccinelli is a known opponent of the plan. He has said he does not support it because it amounts to a tax increase on the middle class, though the plan’s backers have praised it as a creative way of offsetting the declining power of gas taxes.
Cuccinelli added that constitutional fixes could exist, such as empowering local governments to levy the taxes themselves. McDonnell, who has until the end of Monday to take action on the plan as amended by a joint House-Senate conference committee, could sign it, veto it, or send it back with his own amendments. McDonnell said he had previously received similar input from Cuccinelli and would weigh it carefully.
“We appreciate the attorney general’s ongoing constructive legal and constitutional advice to this office relating to these bills recently passed by the General Assembly,” McDonnell said in a statement Monday. “Every bill passed by the General Assembly is reviewed by the attorney general, and we will consider that advice as we make a final determination on necessary amendments to the legislation.”