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Transportation plan approved by Senate panel

BY CHELYEN DAVIS

RICHMOND—In a redux of the House vote Wednesday, Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation bill sailed easily through a Senate committee on Thursday.

But no Democrats voted for it, and in the evenly split Senate, McDonnell’s bill could face difficulty and almost certainly will see changes when it comes to a floor vote next week.

Like the House, the Senate Finance committee had to pass a transportation bill by Thursday, the deadline for both houses to pass revenue bills. McDonnell’s bill, which eliminates the state gas tax and raises the sales tax, qualifies as a revenue bill.

While McDonnell’s administration has proposed an amendment that would let McDonnell stop his proposal to toll I-95 if the bill passes, the Senate committee did not actually adopt that amendment, although the House did.

Senators said they were voting for the bill to keep the conversation going, not because they liked everything in it.

“I’m prepared to support a vehicle to keep something in play,” said Sen. Emmett Hanger, R–Augusta.

He then listed provisions in the bill he doesn’t like—the elimination of the gas tax, the higher fees for registration and for alternative-fuel vehicles, the taking of a larger portion of general fund money for transportation.

“I have concerns about a number of things in the bill,” said Sen. Jill Vogel, R–Winchester. “I very much want to support something, and I very much want to get something to the Senate floor, where then we can have a discussion and then we can have the debate.”

They and others said they hope to amend the bill to make it more to their liking as it moves forward.

Democrats said the same thing, but they didn’t vote to get it out of committee.

“It’s very important that we all recognize that we’re facing a crisis in transportation, but I cannot support this bill,” said Sen. Janet Howell, D–Fairfax. “I think getting rid of the gas tax is a very poor idea. It’s a user fee. Replacing the gas tax with a sales tax is regressive and most particularly it will harm people who don’t even own a car. It has its incentives exactly backward.”

Sen. Dick Saslaw, D–Fairfax, noted that the Republicans said they disliked virtually everything in the bill.

“Listening to my colleagues who are sitting on your left is kind of like Mrs. Lincoln saying, ‘Other than that, the play was pretty good,’” Saslaw said.

The bill, he said, is “like putting a mink coat on a pig, and everyone knows that’s exactly what this is.”

He predicted senators would amend the bill on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

Sen. Richard Stuart, R–Stafford, is a co-sponsor of McDonnell’s bill. He said after the Finance Committee vote that while he and others have concerns about various provisions, everyone is trying to keep the bill alive so they can keep working on it. He said he expects to see proposals from Democrats to raise the gas tax, or proposals to put a sales tax on gas instead of a flat tax.

That could set up a fight with the House later on as the two bodies work to reconcile different versions of the bill.

“I do expect that you’re going to see changes from the floor,” Stuart said. “Hopefully, there’ll be a consensus.”

Chelyen Davis: 804/343-2245

cdavis@freelancestar.com

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