Divided Va. Senate panel OKs transport funds bill

Governor’s proposal ‘going nowhere,’ Saslaw says

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RICHMOND — Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation-funding package won a Senate committee’s endorsement Thursday despite the reservations of some of his fellow Republicans and outright opposition from Democrats.

On a 10-5 party-line vote, the Finance Committee sent the Republican governor’s five-year, $3.1 billion proposal to the Senate floor without amendment. The action came a day after the House Finance Committee approved a slightly modified version of the legislation.

The Senate panel spent only about 20 minutes discussing the bill, reserving most of the debate — and, in all likelihood, attempts to change the measure — for the floor early next week. The full House also will take up the measure by Tuesday, the deadline for each chamber to act on its own legislation.

“We ought not kid the public. This bill is going nowhere,” said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat.

Mr. McDonnell’s transportation plan was imperiled when Republicans in the evenly divided Senate waited until a Democrat was away for President Obama’s inauguration last week to muscle through a legislative redistricting plan beneficial to the GOP. The Republican-controlled House has delayed action on the redistricting bill until at least Wednesday, so the Senate won’t know the outcome before voting on the transportation plan.

The governor’s bill would eliminate the gas tax and raise the state sales tax from 5 percent to 5.8 percent, with the extra revenue going into transportation. It also would raise vehicle-registration fees, impose a new $100 fee on alternative-fuel vehicles and increase the portion of the sales tax already earmarked for highways. If Congress passes legislation giving states authority to collect sales taxes on out-of-state online and catalog sales, that money also would go to transportation.

“I think getting rid of the gas tax is a very poor idea,” said Sen. Janet D. Howell, Fairfax Democrat.

She said the gas tax is a “user fee,” while the additional sales tax would be paid even by people who don’t own a car. She also predicted that elimination of the 17.5 cents-per-gallon gasoline tax would not result in a commensurate decrease in the price at the pump — a claim the McDonnell administration has disputed.

Several Republican senators said there are aspects of the proposal they don’t like, but they wanted to keep it alive for possible changes.

“I have concerns about some pieces; specifically, the fees,” said Sen. Ryan T. McDougle, Hanover Republican.

Republican Sens. Jill Holtzman Vogel of Fauquier County and Emmett W. Hanger Jr. of Augusta County also expressed reservations.

Mr. Saslaw said his GOP colleagues’ remarks were “like Mrs. Lincoln saying, ‘Other than that, the play was pretty good.’”

If both chambers pass different versions of the bill, those differences would have to be resolved by a conference committee before the 46-day session ends Feb. 23.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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