- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2007

RICHMOND — A Senate panel yesterday added a one-time $150 fee to register new cars onto a transportation proposal a shaky coalition of House and Senate Republicans had stitched together.

The Senate Finance Committee also stripped House Speaker William J. Howell’s bill of $250 million a year from the state’s general operating fund that was dedicated to roads, rail and transit.

On a 9-6 vote, the sharply divided panel advanced the substitute bill to the Senate floor, and unless the changes are substantially reversed there, Mr. Howell warned, it could doom the first substantial transportation funding effort in a generation.

“People talk about putting it into conference. I’m not sure it will get into conference,” Mr. Howell said after the vote.

That leaves Republican Sens. Thomas K. Norment Jr., Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Marty E. Williams and others in the challenging position of restoring much of Mr. Howell’s original bill with a series of floor amendments.

“I’d think long and hard before I just blithely accepted the Senate substitute because it may be that means they’ll get nothing,” said Mr. Howell, Stafford County Republican.

Sen. John C. Watkins, Powhatan Republican, said his amendments would generate about $330 million from the $150 levy imposed on every car purchase and upon people who move to Virginia and register their cars here for the first time. That removes the necessity for using general funds that are reserved for such government functions as public education, health care, public safety and care for the aged and indigent, supporters of his bill said.

Mr. Watkins’ substitute measure retains $2 billion borrowed for transportation, sharply higher fines on abusive drivers, a $10 annual increase in car registration fees, a 1.5 cent boost in the tax on diesel fuel and higher fees for large trucks that violate road weight limits.

It also would allow local governments statewide to boost the grantor’s tax, a levy homeowners would pay when they sell their houses.

Mr. Watkins’ plan makes minor changes in regional plans addressing the state’s most populous regions. In Hampton Roads, it restores a 5 percent tax on auto repairs that could be levied in Hampton Roads and nudges the commercial real estate tax from 15 cents in Mr. Howell’s plan to 20 cents. For Northern Virginia, it provides for a one-half percent sales tax increase.

“This is not a panacea. I quite frankly think that it’s going to take a lot more than what we have in this bill or the other bill,” Mr. Watkins said in outlining his amendments.

Mr. Watkins also said the public has had too little opportunity to scrutinize the $250 million annual general fund detour to transportation, but critics shot back that essential elements of Mr. Howell’s bill were first made public a month ago while Mr. Watkins’ amendments were adopted only minutes after they were first offered.

In a scathing denunciation later on the House floor, Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith of Salem cited the date and time stamp on Mr. Watkins’ measure: 5:12 a.m. on Tuesday, not six hours before it came up for a vote.

“So while they were concerned that our plan had not been vetted, they slapped this out at 5:12 a.m. this morning,” said Mr. Griffith. He called Mr. Watkins’ plan “a poison to the process.”

“The only question is, is that poison so strong … that they have successfully killed meaningful transportation improvement in Virginia this year?” Mr. Griffith said.

By imposing terms that anti-tax conservatives who dominate the House, the Finance Committee could be creating differences so profound that teams of negotiators from the House and Senate won’t be able to reconcile them, Mr. Norment warned.

That would leave the legislature unable to pass transportation reforms for a second straight year — the third time in four sessions — heading into November elections with all 140 legislative seats open and voters in the state’s most populous areas angry over chronic highway overcrowding.

Mr. Howell, upset at the Senate committee’s action, said the Republican legislative coalition that put together his bill in weeks of behind-the-scenes conversations would not accept wholesale changes.

“We have a compromise,” Mr. Howell said in an exchange with a reporter. “How many times do I have to tell you? Read my lips: we have a compromise.”

Of the nine Senate committee members who supported Mr. Watkins’ substitute, five were Democrats.

Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax County Democrat, said he thinks the full Senate will approve Mr. Watkins’ amendments. Then, told that the speaker considers that a deal-breaker, Mr. Saslaw said, “That’s fine. Doesn’t bother me in the slightest. You want me to repeat it again?”

Mr. Howell said Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, should urge Democrats to reject the Senate amendment if he wants transportation legislation to survive this year.

“I would like to see the governor say, ‘You know, fellows, this may be our only chance to get something for transportation,’ ” Mr. Howell said.

In a separate and largely symbolic action yesterday afternoon, the House Transportation Committee revived provisions of Mr. Howell’s bill, superimposing them over legislation dealing with the authority to impose tolls in Hampton Roads. The measure advanced from the committee on a 15-5 vote.

• Associated Press writer Larry O’Dell contributed to this report.

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