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Howell not sure legislature will have time to deal with transportation

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House Speaker Bill Howell said he’s not sure there’s time in the Virginia General Assembly’s winter session to tackle the difficult issue of transportation funding.

He also said he’d prefer to see the state shift some general fund revenue to transportation rather than raise taxes, although he doesn’t consider indexing the gasoline tax to be a tax increase.

Howell, R–Stafford, was speaking to the Fredericksburg Chamber of Commerce’s annual legislative panel, where he and other area state lawmakers took questions about the upcoming General Assembly session.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, has said he’ll propose a transportation funding package for the 2013 session that might include about $500 million a year in new money to help close a growing shortfall in the state’s road maintenance budget.

This will be McDonnell’s last session as governor, and he has said it’s time for the state to take action to provide new revenue for the state’s road budget. State lawmakers have been debating the issue for years.

Sen. John Watkins, R–Powhatan, has said he’ll file a bill that would raise the gas tax rate (now at 17.5 cents a gallon, unchanged since 1986), while McDonnell has suggested an openness to indexing the gas tax to inflation, which would make it a percentage tax that could rise and fall with the economy.

Howell acknowledged that there is a growing shortfall in the road maintenance budget, and that the gas tax isn’t keeping pace with needs, given the fact that people are driving cars that get better mileage or use alternative fuels.

“We have to find another source of revenue,” Howell said.

But he is not as optimistic as some other lawmakers that the legislature can reach a compromise within the 45-day session.

“The whole idea of doing something has just sprung up in the last two weeks,” Howell said.

He said he thinks a better way to push transportation funding reform is for a future governor to run on the issue, and then work to make it happen in the first or second year of their term.

Howell said he likes the idea of using some money from the general fund, although the state Senate has traditionally opposed that because the general fund also pays for education and other major programs.

He also said he doesn’t support a tax increase—including an increase in the gas tax. But, Howell said, he wouldn’t consider indexing the gas tax to be a tax increase. McDonnell holds the same position.

Sen. Richard Stuart, R–Stafford, said a compromise between those who favor using general funds for transportation and those who want a gas tax increase is “going to be tough,” although he said he was optimistic it could happen.

It will require, Stuart said, strong leadership from McDonnell.

The legislative panel also included Sen. Bryce Reeves, R–Spotsylvania, Del. Mark Cole, R–Spotsylvania, and Del. Bobby Orrock, R–Caroline.

They took questions not just on transportation but also about tort reform—the state Chamber has several such bills it wants passed— and what the state plans to do about the federal Affordable Care Act.

Virginia leaders must decide if they want to set up a state-based health insurance exchange or use a federal one, and they also must decide whether to expand the state’s Medicaid eligibility.

So far, McDonnell and lawmakers seem inclined to do neither.

Lawmakers on the panel echoed concerns McDonnell has expressed about a lack of information on what exactly the state must do, and how exchanges would work.

Howell said that while the federal government will cover the costs for expanding Medicaid for the first few years, that money won’t be provided forever, and he has doubts about how the federal government—which already has massive budget issues of its own—can really pay for trillions of dollars for Medicaid expansion in the states.

Howell said if Virginia expanded the Medicaid eligibility, it would add about 400,000 people to the rolls and cost—above the federal payments—about $1.8 to $2.2 billion over nine years.

“We just don’t have the money,” Howell said.

The 2013 General Assembly session starts Jan. 9.

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028