- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2007

RICHMOND — The Senate voted 23-17 yesterday to pass a transportation plan offered as an alternative to a delicate compromise that had been worked out by a handful of Republican senators and delegates.

The plan faces fierce opposition in the House of Delegates, controlled by anti-tax Republicans who want to spend about $250 million annually from the state’s general operating fund for transportation. The Senate plan would not dip into the general fund, which pays for public education, health care, public safety and other state priorities.

Instead of using general funds, the Senate plan would impose a one-time $150 registration fee on new- and used-car purchases and other vehicles registered in Virginia for the first time. Responding to critics who said the fee would hurt the poor, senators amended the provision to apply only to cars worth more than $2,500.

Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City Republican, suggested that the compromise bill he and others drafted in behind-the-scenes negotiations over several weeks provided the best hope for a transportation solution in the session, It ends Feb. 24.

“My sole objective in 2007 has been to advance a transportation plan that has some modicum, some scintilla, some prayer of being passed by both chambers of this legislative body,” Mr. Norment said in a floor speech.

He also warned that voters will vent their frustration at the polls in this fall’s legislative elections if the General Assembly does nothing about transportation.

But Sen. John H. Chichester, Stafford Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said demands on the general fund are growing too rapidly to pledge $250 million annually for transportation. If revenue dips and the legislature reneges on that commitment, he said, Virginia would be left with “a half-baked transportation plan.”

Mr. Chichester was one of six Republicans who joined all 17 Senate Democrats in voting for the bill.

Mr. Norment said he was astonished that the Finance Committee, which previously approved using $66 million in general funds for transportation, cut that to zero in the bill it approved Tuesday.

“It was like they took the vehicle and put it in reverse,” he said.

Mr. Norment’s floor amendment to earmark $100 million from the general fund was rejected on a voice vote.

The Senate plan includes several components of the House-passed bill, including $2 billion in borrowing, sharply higher fines for abusive drivers, a $10 annual increase in car registration fees, a 1.5-cent boost in the diesel fuel tax and higher fees for overweight trucks.

It also would allow local governments statewide to boost the grantor’s tax — a levy homeowners would pay when they sell their houses — and authorize Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads localities to raise various fees and taxes for regional transportation projects.

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