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Conservative caucus concerned about roads plan

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Print this page By Mark Robinson
RICHMOND – Members of the General Assembly’s Conservative Caucus today detailed its concerns about Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation overhaul plan, which would eliminate Virginia’s gasoline tax and raise its state sales tax.

At a midmorning press conference, the caucus announced its agenda for the 2013 legislative session and responded to questions about the governor’s proposals.

“Conservatives want to see taxes kept low,” said Delegate Ben Cline, R-Amherst, who co-chairs the caucus. “They want to see a plan in place that locks in transportation funding for transportation purposes and not diverted to other uses. And they want to make sure working families aren’t subjected to excessive fee hikes.”

Cline said he has conveyed his concerns about McDonnell’s transportation funding ideas to the governor. The caucus’ co-chair, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, criticized McDonnell’s reluctance to use a larger portion of Virginia’s $1.4 billion surplus over the last three years for transportation funding.

“We have long-standing promises that have been made by governors, current and past, to lock up our transportation trust fund,” Obenshain said. “We need to fulfill that promise so that voters in Virginia have confidence that our transportation funds are going to be dedicated to transportation, not diverted.”

Obenshain said he wasn’t opposed to raising taxes to fund transportation, as long as the burden would be shared by both Virginians and people from out of state.

McDonnell’s proposed $3.1 billion transportation overhaul would fund improvements to Virginia’s transportation system over the next five years. The funds would supplement $14 billion of transportation projects already underway in the commonwealth, the most in Virginia’s history.

McDonnell announced the overhaul on the eve of the General Assembly session last week. Since then, it has gained support from numerous businesses, transportation and labor groups which include Norfolk Southern Corp., the Virginia Railroad Association and the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce.

"We share the Governor’s sense of urgency on this critical issue and encourage members of the General Assembly from both parties to give the Governor’s proposal their utmost consideration as they work towards a long-term solution,” Dan Motle, chairman of the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement.

But opposition has arisen as well. Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, spoke out against the governor’s plan in a speech on the Senate floor last week, calling the proposals “somewhat baffling.”

Among McDonnell’s proposed changes:

• The current 17.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax, which accounts for more than 30 percent of the state’s transportation revenue, would be eliminated; instead, the state sales tax would be raised from 5 percent to 5.8 percent. McDonnell predicted this would generate more than $600 million in additional transportation funds. The 17.5-cent tax on diesel would remain as is.

• A higher percent of the state’s sales tax would go directly to transportation funds – from 0.5 percent to 0.75 percent over the five years.

• The plan would impose an increase of $15 for each vehicle registration, resulting in an average vehicle registration cost of $56 per vehicle, McDonnell said.

• The state would charge a mandatory $100 alternative fuel vehicle fee. More than 91,000 hybrid and electric vehicles are currently registered in Virginia.

McDonnell collaborated with Delegate Timothy Hugo, R-Centreville, and Sen. Stephen Newman, R-Forest, on the plan. Both are members of the transportation committee in their respective chambers. If passed, the changes would take effect July 1.

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