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Transportation funding in low gear

January 24, 2013 12:10 am



--State lawmakers have just about a week left to sort a multitude of competing transportation funding plans into what's likely to be one bill per General Assembly chamber.

But the process moved rather slowly Wednesday.

The House Finance Committee weeded out a number of proposals, tabling bills or rolling them into Gov. Bob McDonnell's transportation plan, sponsored by House Speaker Bill Howell, R-Stafford, and Del. Tim Hugo. But it didn't take any action on McDonnell's plan.

On the Senate side, a Senate Finance subcommittee heard about half a dozen bills, then thanked the sponsors, taking no action.

The various bills would raise the sales tax, or index the gas tax, or both. Some would raise fees, others limit tolls; at least one changes the income tax, and one allows Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to levy a local income tax. Another would direct all year-end surplus money, beyond that required to go to the rainy-day fund, to transportation.

Legislators are required to finish work on all revenue bills by Jan. 31, next Thursday. The multitude of tax changes proffered in each of the transportation bills definitely puts them in that category.

By then, lawmakers must at least reach some consensus within each house.

Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, who has filed one of the bills and chairs the Finance subcommittee that heard them all Wednesday, said finding a compromise in a week will require "some very long hours."

"I don't think I'm going home this weekend," he said.

McDonnell initiated the push to reform transportation funding last month when he announced it would be one of his top priorities in this, his last session. The governor, a Republican, wants to eliminate the state gasoline tax, raise the sales tax, increase fees and pin hopes on an un-passed federal bill that would let states collect sales tax on online purchases.

His bill is clearly going to be the vehicle in the House, although it's likely to be amended, perhaps drastically, to try to appease anti-tax Republicans and Democrats who refuse to spend general-fund money on roads, as well as those who don't want to see the gas tax--which they consider a valid user fee--go away.

In the Senate, there could be more conflict between the McDonnell bill--sponsored by Sens. Steve Newman, Jeff McWaters and Stafford's Richard Stuart--and Sen. John Watkins' bill, which was filed earlier than all the others.

Other senior senators, including Sen. Dick Saslaw, also have transportation bills.

Things are also more complicated in the Senate because the body is split 20-20, and Democrats have vowed not to vote for a Republican transportation bill after Republicans pushed through a surprise redistricting plan on Monday.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate version of McDonnell's bill passed through the Senate Transportation Committee on its way to Finance. Sen. Dave Marsden, a Democrat, tried to kill it with a "pass by indefinitely" motion. It failed.

Marsden said his opposition to McDonnell's bill was that it didn't do enough to fix the state's transportation funding problem.

Other bills, he said, would be better.

Wagner declined to talk about Senate Democrats, but said transportation is "the No. 1 problem we face in Virginia."

"I think this is the year we have everybody with their oars in the water," he said.

He and other senators said they're focused on crafting a bill in the next week that can pass the Senate.

"We've got veal, we've got venison, we've got pork, we've got beef, we're ready to make some sausage now," Wagner said.

After a bill passes the Senate, he added, then they'll have to make more sausage to reach a compromise with the House and whatever bill it approves next week.

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028

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