- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2006

RICHMOND — The state Senate comfortably passed four transportation bills yesterday that won grudging thanks from House Republicans for untangling the budget from their long-running dispute over road funding.

The Senate votes improved chances for enacting a new budget in the next few weeks without disrupting state or local government operations, but it did little to brighten prospects for a transportation deal.

With time running out, the urgency of the matter was clear.

“It is time to separate the debate. It is time to understand that the budget of this commonwealth is in place,” said Sen. Charles R. Hawkins, Pittsylvania Republican and sponsor of the Senate’s new $748 million-a-year transportation bill.

His plan features a 6 cents-per-gallon fee that would be assessed on major fuel distribution terminals in Virginia, a move he and other supporters framed as a slap at the petroleum industry as gas prices shoot past $3 a gallon.

“Make no mistake about it, this is a fee that would be charged to big oil companies,” said Sen. R. Edward Houck, Spotsylvania Democrat, referring to recent reports of record oil profits and pay packages in the hundreds of millions of dollars for oil executives.

“I have no problem, I have no reservation about hitting the big oil companies here in the commonwealth,” Mr. Houck said in a speech supporting Mr. Hawkins’ bill.

The full Senate also approved an amendment Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City Republican, offered that he said would bar terminal operators from passing on the costs, even after Finance Committee counsel Mark Vucci warned the panel that the provision appeared unenforceable and prone to being struck down in court.

The Senate’s new statewide package is about one-fourth smaller than its previous $1 billion package. Besides the terminal operators’ fee, it includes new taxes on titling and registering cars, punitive new fines on bad drivers and an increase of the tax on diesel by 1.5 cents a gallon to match the 17.5 cents a gallon state gasoline tax. It also dedicates taxes paid on car insurance premiums to transportation.

Mr. Hawkins’ bill would earmark $50 million to rail, direct 15 percent of the revenues to transit and 85 percent to road construction.

The Senate also passed “regional self-help” options for Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and localities along Interstate 81, but none of them take effect unless a statewide plan passes.

The four counties and five cities in the Washington suburbs would raise about $388 million annually through new taxes, including a 0.5 percent sales tax increase. While House members showed scant appetite for the new taxes in the new transportation bills, yesterday’s vote was the first tentative step toward reconciling a budget before state and local governments begin putting layoff contingencies into effect in mid- to late May.

The current state budget expires June 30.

Now, the transportation question can be set aside for a while as the House and Senate resolve the spending blueprint to keep the rest of state government going beyond July 1, House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith said. A House budget that segregates transportation funding from the rest of the budget has been ignored since it was sent to the Senate two weeks ago, he said. Likewise, the House will hold the transportation bills until the Senate acts on its budget bill.

“It’s more machinations and gamesmanship. We are moving forward slowly, but it’s taking a long time and the people of Virginia are waiting for a budget,” Mr. Griffith, Salem Republican, said.

The House and Senate won’t return to Richmond until Wednesday, virtually assuring that this year’s budget will be the latest ever enacted in Virginia. The most tardy budget to date was passed on May 7, 2004, after an unprecedented 115-day budget stalemate.

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