Wednesday, March 12, 2008

RICHMOND — The Kaine administration yesterday detailed for legislators a mechanism to pay back the $11 million or more in taxes and fees that the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) collected for local road projects since the beginning of the year.

“As we have discovered with the ‘abusive driver’ fees … returning fees is far more difficult than collecting them,” Secretary of Transportation Pierce R. Homer told members of the House Transportation Committee. “We believe it is important to undertake these refunds expeditiously.”

Under the three-pronged refund plan that Mr. Homer shared on behalf of Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, the NVTA would return by May 1 any sales taxes collected on home sales to the clerk of the court in five affected jurisdictions.

The clerk, within 60 days of the plan being signed into law, then would return the funds to the person who acted as the settlement agent during the home sale. That person would provide the final refund within 90 days.

The plan calls on the commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles to develop a plan by April 1 to refund the $10 registration fee and 1 percent initial vehicle-registration fee.

The remaining fees and taxes, including the 2 percent tax on hotel stays and 5 percent tax on auto repairs, will be considered “unclaimed property” in the state treasury.

The cost of the plan is not known, and lawmakers are expected to take up the bill up later this week.

Meanwhile, House Republicans also said they plan to broaden the refund proposal to provide new funding for the regional transportation fixes. The push comes after the Virginia Supreme Court on Feb. 29 ruled that it was unconstitutional for the General Assembly to delegate taxing powers to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and a similar body in Hampton Roads.

The decision killed nearly $600 million in new transportation funding for the state’s two most congested regions.

Asked about the details of the plan, Delegate David B. Albo would only say, “We have a bill that will provide a fix to the local Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia plans that local governments will like.

“I don’t think I am asking anything outrageous when I am asking the Senate to let us be where we were February 28, the day before this court decision,” said Mr. Albo, Fairfax Republican.

He said the enhanced transportation plan will either give localities the power to raise additional taxes or call on the General Assembly to impose the taxes, or a mix of both approaches.

“What the [ruling said] is, anything that raises revenue is a tax no matter what you call it, and if you have a tax, you have to implement it by an elected body,” Mr. Albo said. “What that means is, in order to make the [plan] constitutional either the commonwealth of Virginia has to do it or local governments have to do it — period.”

House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe T. May, Loudoun Republican, said that the situation is “evolving” and that “the General Assembly has come to the begrudging view that we are willing to do a portion of it, or perhaps even all of it at the state level.”

“We have heard an awful lot from the local governments saying, ‘We are not going to collect it. It’s not our responsibility,’ ” he said.

Still, Republicans are concerned that if the state imposes the taxes, there is no guarantee that the General Assembly will not use the money for something else in the future.

Senate Democrats have said they will not accept a regional fix unless it includes more money for the statewide road-maintenance fund.

Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, said that if the state continues to use road-construction money to pay for road maintenance, new revenue for new projects will run dry by 2015.

Mr. Saslaw floated a plan last week that includes a 1 percent tax increase on wholesale gasoline that would triple over three years and a half-percent increase in the cost of titling cars.

Yesterday, Mr. May said the regional fixes are the first priority.

“There has to be some discussions about getting the solutions back in place for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, in front of everything else,” he said. “I’m willing to address the statewide part on a special session.”

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