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Cuccinelli backs new amendment to McDonnell transportation bill

Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation plan is in line for changes on the Senate floor tomorrow, and they come from his bill’s own sponsor.

Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, has filed an amendment to the governor’s bill. The amendment would apply a 5.5 percent sales tax on gas, removing the 17.5 cents per gallon tax that currently is on gas. It removes McDonnell’s proposed increase in the sales tax and the higher vehicle registration fees he had included in his bill.

Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, is a chief co-sponsor of the McDonnell bill and an advocate of the new proposal.

“I think it’s important that it’s simple, there’s a nexus to gas,” Stuart said.

He said the amendment removes the fees, which many lawmakers objected to, treats diesel the same as gasoline, and still would be paid by out-of-state drivers.

“I really think this is something a lot of people can get behind,” Stuart said.

The amended bill wouldn’t raise as much money as McDonnell’s proposal is projected to raise, but Stuart said it isn’t greatly less because he doesn’t think all aspects of McDonnell’s proposal — such as the registration fees — would survive even if the rest of McDonnell’s plan did. Stuart said that while a 5.5 percent sales tax on gas raises about the same amount of revenue now as the 17.5 cents-per-gallon tax, that would be expected to increase over time.

The amendment is being billed around the Capitol as a conservative alternative, and it has the backing of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

In a written statement, Cuccinelli said that Newman is “advancing an alternative that I believe has the best chance to get the votes needed to make improvements to Virginia’s transportation system.

“The proposed sales tax on gasoline will replace a gas tax that is no longer the best means of raising revenue for transportation,” Cuccinelli said.

He makes the same argument as McDonnell — that with more fuel-efficient vehicles, the gas tax is not bringing in enough revenue to keep pace with road needs.

“Gas tax revenues do not rise with inflation, and they automatically decline when Virginians make the desirable choice to drive more fuel efficient vehicles,” Cuccinelli said. “The proposed sales tax, in contrast, will track up with inflation. I am comfortable with this proposal setting the current sales tax rate on gasoline at a revenue-neutral level.”

But shifting McDonnell’s own bill to a sales tax on gas will have difficulty getting out of the Senate when the bill is debated on Tuesday.

Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, scoffed at the amendment on Monday.

He said a five percent sales tax on a $3.20 gallon of gas only gets about 17 to 17.5 cents — the same revenue the state would get now.

“That ain’t getting us squat,” Saslaw told reporters.

He said he preferred a proposal from Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, that would have raised more revenue from the gas tax.

He also said he continues to object to provisions taking a portion of general fund money for transportation.

‘That’s going to happen after I can make a determination that hell has frozen over,” Saslaw said.

He predicted that no Democrats would vote for the bill, or the amendment, tomorrow, and that some Republicans won’t either.

“We’re not repealing the gas tax,” Saslaw said. “Last time I checked they need 21 votes, the lieutenant governor can’t vote on this.”

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