- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2000

RICHMOND Northern Virginians could be socked with double the current price for an auto emissions inspection if a bill passes the House of Delegates today.

Station owners who provide inspections say they are losing money on the service, prompting Sen. Warren E. Barry, Fairfax Republican, to submit a bill to raise the fee stations may charge from $20 to $50. The House Transportation Committee amended the bill this week to $40.

The inspection fee increase would go directly to station owners the government would not get a cut. But several other bills specific to Northern Virginia would allow locales put their hands deeper in residents' pockets to pay for transportation.

One, which passed the Senate and is now before the House Finance Committee, would let Northern Virginia voters impose a 2 percent tax on themselves at the gas pump, with the money going to transportation projects. That option would raise about $50 million a year.

The other bill, which passed the House and is now before the Senate, revises a current law that would let jurisdictions add a 1 percent tax to the state income tax to pay for transportation projects. Local officials said they were reluctant to use the current law because its five-year time frame on taxes meant they couldn't issue bonds from the money.

Both the gas and income tax provisions would have to pass a regionwide referendum first.

Delegate John H. "Jack" Rust Jr., Fairfax Republican, who voted for the House bill, said it's inevitable local jurisdictions will get their hands on income tax revenue.

Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, Newport News Republican, who voted against the measure, supports returning a portion of state income tax revenues but doesn't want the jurisdictions to have a direct hand in taxing. "I think they have enough taxing instruments," he said.

For some legislators outside Northern Virginia, there's a sense that the region can tax itself if it wants to but they don't want it for their area.

One example is Lynchburg. The city's mayor, Pete Warren, asked his local lawmakers this year to sponsor a bill allowing a similar referendum for Lynchburg to raise money to build schools and pay for a new jail, but they turned him down. Yet Delegates L. Preston Bryant Jr. and Kathy J. Byron, both Lynchburg Republicans, voted for the income tax bill in the House.

Mr. Bryant yesterday said that vote was probably a mistake. But Mrs. Byron defended her vote, saying Northern Virginia's needs are great and if delegates there ask for a bill to grant taxing authority, she would not oppose it. But that doesn't carry over to her home city, she said: "I would definitely not support it for the city of Lynchburg."

Some of the bill's opponents, however, say giving Northern Virginia taxing authority could set a precedent for other regions or projects. They say to expect education and social services to be added to transportation as reasons to grant local authority.

Gov. James S. Gilmore III told his Northern Virginia radio audience Tuesday he would not sign the gas or income tax bills.

"I won't sign them. I've run two campaigns now on this issue," he said on WTOP-AM (Radio 1500), referring to his 1997 run for governor and last November's assembly elections. "If the people of Northern Virginia are just desperate to have their taxes increased, I am certain [in 2001] a gubernatorial candidate will run on that."

But he hasn't taken a public position on the emissions bill yet.

The change would only apply to Northern Virginia, because it's the only region in the state required by federal law to check once every two years for emissions problems. Northern Virginian lawmakers have split on whether to raise the fee.

Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican, said the plan before them is too costly. He plans to submit an amendment today to cut the fee to $35.

Mr. Albo had statistics from the state Department of Environmental Quality that said the average station can do three inspections per hour. The department said the average wage for technicians is $18-$20 an hour, but that doesn't include the cost to dedicate a repair bay to testing. Stations also average only six inspections per day.

Delegate Thomas M. Bolvin, Fairfax Republican, voted for the measure when it passed out of the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday. He said he doesn't like the increased fee but is worried that if stations go out of business, the government would have to take over, leading to long waiting lines for residents.

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