Highways plan still rolling forward
After some tweaks by lawmakers, Gov. Bob McDonnell’s plan is on course for some key votes today.
Tuesday, February 5, 2013
RICHMOND — Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation funding plan hit some bumps in the General Assembly on Monday, but stayed on course for key votes today in the Senate and House of Delegates.
The Republican-dominated House advanced its version of the bill Monday night, preserving most key components of McDonnell’s five-year, $3.1 billion package for roads and transit. The McDonnell plan would scrap the state’s excise tax on gasoline, increase the retail sales tax from 5 percent to 5.8 percent and increase vehicle registration fees by $15 annually.
The House advanced the bill to a final vote after approving amendments that would scrap a proposed $100 fee on alternative fuel and hybrid vehicles and prohibit tolls on Interstate 95 south of Fredericksburg.
At the other end of the Capitol, the Senate sponsor of McDonnell’s bill unveiled a revamped version of the legislation, dropping the proposed sales tax increase and adding a proposed 5.5 percent tax on the wholesale price of gasoline.
Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, also proposed dropping the hybrid vehicle fee and the increase in vehicle registration fees that McDonnell had in his original proposal.
Newman said he made the changes in an effort to get more votes in the evenly divided Senate. But the Senate’s top Democrat, Richard Saslaw of Fairfax County, was dismissive of Newman’s overhauled bill, saying: “That’s not going anywhere.”
Each chamber will act on its own transportation bill today, the deadline for each house to finish work on its own legislation. The legislators who are carrying McDonnell’s transportation bills expect details to change significantly in negotiations between the House and Senate.
“We’re very pleased by the positive actions taken tonight by the House,” McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said. “These were all friendly amendments and we look forward to the final House vote on the governor’s full proposal tomorrow.”
The House bill (HB 2313) survived a preliminary voice vote Monday night, despite objections from Democrats who argued that it will drain state funds from education and other services, and concerns from some Northern Virginia legislators who want to ensure their region will be able to generate additional revenue for its road and transit needs.
“I think this bill is a blended approach, trying to comprehensively address our transportation needs,” said Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, who took the lead in defending the bill in a floor debate Monday night.
Some House Democrats raised concerns that the elimination of the state’s 17.5 cents per gallon tax on gasoline would allow out-of-state drivers to avoid paying their share of the cost of using Virginia’s roads. And some objected to McDonnell’s effort to shift more money from the state’s existing 5 percent sales tax — which pays for services such as education and public safety — to pay for roads.
In the Senate, Newman’s substitute plan would impose a 5.5 percent sales tax on the wholesale price of gasoline, which would replace the tax now levied at the pump. The plan would generate nearly $2 billion over the next five years according to a summary circulated Monday afternoon.
“It doesn’t raise quite as much as the governor’s bill, but I think the governor’s bill always would have lost the fees, and that would have brought it much closer to what this bill would end up being,” Newman said.
“I have found that some of the members who were opposed to all of the plans, including some of our conservative members, are much more inclined to vote for it,” Newman said.
Martin said the governor is “always happy to welcome new ideas to the transportation conversation,” but added that McDonnell’s plan “is the broad funding package our transportation system needs to be sustainable in the years ahead.”
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the presumptive Republican nominee for governor, endorsed Newman’s revised bill, calling it “an alternative that I believe has the best chance to get the votes needed to make improvements to Virginia’s transportation system.”
“The proposed sales tax on gasoline will replace a gas tax that is no longer the best means of raising revenue for transportation,” Cuccinelli said.
Saslaw, the Senate Democratic leader, was less impressed. Among other things, he remains opposed to diverting more money from the general fund for transportation.
“That’s going to happen after I can make a determination that hell has frozen over,” Saslaw told reporters.
But both plans count on revenue that the state could generate only if Congress passed legislation that would give states greater ability to compel online retailers to collect state sales taxes. McDonnell projects that Virginia could collect $1.02 billion for transportation over five years if the act is passed.
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