The state Senate adjourned abruptly Friday evening without a vote on the $880 million-a-year transportation bill that had passed the House hours earlier on a bipartisan, 60-40 vote. Senators had languished in recess much of the day Friday, negotiating with the McDonnell administration and awaiting the governor's written guarantee that had not arrived by the dinner hour.
"We need to see the letter with his signature, and the logjam is broken," said Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax.
Promising to muster at least $800 million a year to maintain and repair Virginia's aging, 58,000-mile network of state roads, McDonnell introduced a transportation overhaul proposal the day before the 2013 session began and looked to it as his best hope for a lasting legislative legacy.
Friday's 11th-hour standoff over Medicaid expansion provisions in the state budget left in limbo a transportation vote that had been a toss-up at best.
"We have to have assurance that he will follow the conference committee report on Medicaid, or the votes aren't there for transportation," said Howell and one of the Senate budget and transportation negotiators. "There's some dissatisfaction with the transportation plan anyway."
Aside from seeking leverage to ensure Medicaid expansion, Democrats were unhappy with the transportation plan's diversion of sales tax revenues from the general fund, which pays for services such as public schools, health care and public safety.
McDonnell sent a two-page ultimatum late Wednesday to senior budget writers, warning them not to expand Medicaid until vast federal and state cost and efficiency reforms are finalized. The move angered Democrats and dismayed Republicans who had worked for weeks privately negotiating a politically fragile compromise on both transportation and the budget.
House and Senate negotiators along with Dr. Bill Hazel, McDonnell's secretary of health and human resources, worked out a compromise that establishes a 12-member commission to oversee and approve reforms demanded by McDonnell. Expanding the program would extend benefits to 400,000 uninsured Virginians just above the poverty level.
Senate Democrats wanted a letter from McDonnell to confirm his acceptance of that compromise.
Earlier Friday, the transportation package had passed the House thanks to strong support from the Democratic minority.
Twenty-five House Democrats supported the bill, while only seven opposed it.
Republicans, who control more than two-thirds of the House's 100 seats, were almost evenly split, Thirty-three anti-tax Republicans opposed it, while 34 Republicans supported it. It was also supported by the chamber's only independent, Del. Lacey Putney, who organizes with the GOP.
Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge County, called it a massive tax increase that would negate any economic benefit from upgrading and maintaining the state's roads.
"I hear my colleagues say, 'We've got to do something, we've got to do something.' Well, this bill does something, but I will tell you that it is the wrong thing," Cline said. "See what happens when we raise just about every tax dealing with transportation, and some others that don't deal with transportation, and see what happens to our business rankings and our business reputation."
The bipartisan vote, however, exposed an undercurrent of regional differences attendant to every transportation funding debate over the past dozen years.
Del. Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William, suggested the formula for allocating statewide transportation revenue to different regions, unchanged since the early 20th century, was outmoded. He said it shortchanged burgeoning suburbs such as his own and subsidized rural localities.
A rural Republican, Del. Terry Kilgore of Scott County, noted Marshall's comment.
"What did he just tell you? How was he going to get the money to fund roads in Northern Virginia? He was going to get them from me. He was going to get them from my friends in the rural area. He was going to get them from the Shenandoah Valley by changing the transportation formula, by changing the membership on the CTB (Commonwealth Transportation Board)," Kilgore said.
The outcome was assured, however, when one Democrat after another blessed the compromise.
"There are times when you have to look beyond yourself and look at the whole, and that's what governing is. That's why you're down here. Yes, you're down here to protect your individual piece of the pie, but the puzzle doesn't work 'til you put it all together," said Del. Onzlee Ware, D-Roanoke. Ware was the lone House Democrat on the team of five delegates and five senators who brokered the transportation compromise over four days of negotiations.