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Transportation Proposals Falter

Va. Senate Panel Rejects Car-Tax Relief, Bills to Raise Funds

By Michael D. Shear and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page B06

RICHMOND, Feb. 16 -- A key Senate committee on Wednesday rejected a central part of the House's $1 billion transportation plan by defeating a bill that would have imposed steep fines on reckless drivers and speeders.

The Senate Finance Committee also turned back efforts by the House of Delegates to restart the car-tax relief program and to finance road projects using an existing tax on insurance. The House Appropriations Committee responded by rejecting the Senate's transportation plan.

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The actions are a blow to House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who had made passage of the transportation package his primary goal for the 2005 General Assembly session. Howell said he is disappointed in the Senate's decision to kill the bill on reckless driving.

"I was hoping at a minimum that we could keep it alive so the discussion would continue," Howell said. "If you look at the money we could have generated from the bill, that's the equivalent of four or five cents on the gas tax."

The committee actions Wednesday signaled defeat for all standalone bills that would have generated money for transportation.

The best chance to pump new money into transportation this year now rests with about a dozen senior lawmakers who will negotiate changes to the state's two-year, $60 billion budget. The House and Senate appointed negotiators Wednesday after each went through the annual ritual of rejecting the other chamber's budget.

Lawmakers, lobbyists and administration officials said disagreements on transportation will be the key sticking point during budget discussions, which are to begin Sunday.

Howell's plan would have raised transportation spending by $1 billion in the current budget and committed the state to spending $400 million a year in the future. Senators have proposed a $670 million transportation plan. They have said they favor waiting until next year to confront the transportation issue head-on.

Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) has offered a one-time, $824 million infusion of money for road and transit projects. Transportation Secretary Whittington W. Clement said he expects lawmakers will compromise.

"From our perspective, both sides will be moving closer to the middle, which is where the governor is," Clement said.

House Republicans had said the bill on reckless driving would have raised more than $100 million a year by imposing tough fines on what they said were seriously abusive drivers.

"Not only does it raise sustainable funds for transportation, but we believe it will have a positive impact on the safety of our roads," said Del. Thomas Davis Rust (R-Fairfax), a chief sponsor of the bill.

Senators said that the bill was too hard on drivers with run-of-the-mill infractions and that it would not provide a stable source of funding for transportation.

"Don't you think this perpetuates the myth that we can fix transportation without the average citizen paying for it?" asked Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax).

Senators also chose to bypass the proposal by Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax) to spend one-third of the tax revenue from insurance premiums on transportation this year. Instead, they reaffirmed their support for a Senate proposal to spend a lesser amount starting next year.

Transportation advocates backed Callahan's idea. But they also said the Senate's version of the plan could be acceptable and urged a comprehensive package for transportation next year, the approach favored by the Senate.

The Finance Committee also axed the House plan to phase out the tax on the first $20,000 of a car's value. The car-tax relief was capped last year as part of the assembly's budget compromise.

A quick death for the proposal was predictable, and it led to some barbed humor. Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William) had barely started presenting his bill when committee Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Stafford) interrupted.

"Even a guy before a firing squad gets a last statement," Lingamfelter pleaded.

Amid laughter, Saslaw interjected, "Mr. Chairman, give him a blindfold and a cigarette."

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