Lamakers eye federal funds for passing seatbelt law

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(Host) There’s been a new development at the Statehouse concerning efforts to pass a primary enforcement seat belt law.

There’s not a lot of support for a new tax on gas guzzlers to pay for public transportation programs.

So lawmakers are eyeing one-time federal money that the state will receive if it passes a primary enforcement seat belt law this year.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) The federal government is offering financial incentives to states to pass primary enforcement seat belt laws.

Vermont has a mandatory seat belt law on the books but it includes a so called secondary enforcement provision. This means that a driver has to be stopped for a different traffic infraction in order to receive a ticket for failing to wear a seat belt.

The federal government will give the state a one time appropriation of roughly $3.5 million if Vermont passes a primary enforcement law this year.

That potential pot of money is how this issue becomes entangled with the gas guzzler bill. The House Transportation committee passed a new tax on low mileage vehicles to restore cuts in public transportation programs that had been proposed by the Douglas Administration.

But this tax is meeting with a lot of resistance at the Statehouse and the seat belt money is now being viewed as a potential alternative to the gas guzzler tax.

House Transportation chairman Richard Westman:

(Westman) “If we’re trying to buy buses, which is a line item every single year in a public transit budget and we’re replacing a surcharge that would be every year money with one time money, I don’t feel great about that. But I do understand it would buy us a year.”

(Kinzel) Governor Jim Douglas doesn’t support a primary enforcement seat belt law and he doesn’t like this plan either.

(Douglas) “What I’m trying to do and what the Legislature will have to do is weigh that against the additional imposition of restriction on the people of our state to use their own judgement and common sense. And I’m not sure that they need to be told what to do.”

(Kinzel) Chairman Westman says he’s frustrated by the anti tax climate at the Statehouse because the state’s transportation infrastructure is crumbling and will cost a lot more money to fix in the future.

(Westman) “If we get to a place in five years from today, which is the prediction, where 50% of our roads are in very poor condition, there will be a hue and cry here. But that’s where we’re headed. We’re either headed there or the same problems that Connecticut had, where a bridge collapses and people get killed. We seem to be on that sort of a track before anybody’s going to react to this.”

(Kinzel) It’s possible that the seat belt bill could be on the House floor for a vote as early as next week.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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