Legislature pushes toward weekend adjournment

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(Host) The Legislature is continuing to push for a weekend adjournment despite disagreements with the governor over next year’s budget.

House and Senate leaders reached agreement on a transportation bill for next year that dramatically increases spending on paving and road and bridge repair projects.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) Most of the disagreement between the House and Senate over this bill concerned a House plan to raise the gas tax by five cents a gallon to help finance a large state transportation bond package.

The Senate opposed this approach because its leaders felt the state’s highway construction industry will be at full capacity with the use of $70 million in new federal transportation stimulus funds.

The compromise adopts elements from both chambers – it raises the gas tax but not by as much as the House wanted and it sets up a bonding program but it delays the implementation of this program for at least a year.

Under the agreement, a 2 percent tax will be imposed on the wholesale price of gas. And virtually all motor vehicle-related fees will be increased by several dollars.  Senate Transportation chairman Dick Mazza: 

(Mazza) "The thing we want to do is create as many jobs as we possibly could, get our infrastructure back on track of recovery, and not leave any federal money on the table. And we’ve done all of those. That’s why I think it’s a good bill. I’m excited about it because it does the job that we intended to do with the least affect of raising taxes."

(Kinzel) House Transportation Chairman Rich Westman thinks there’s little doubt that the bonding initiative will be needed in the future:

(Westman) "What people have to realize is all the stimulus money at the federal level is, after next year, gone. So how are we going to continue to take a bite out of the indicators that are all moving in the wrong direction. We make some steps for a year, but in the long run we have to really pay attention to that and bonding will have to be a piece of that."

(Kinzel) The wholesale tax on gasoline will function like a sales tax. As the price of gas goes up, so will the revenue generated by the tax. Transportation Secretary David Dill likes this approach:

(Dill) "First time we’ve done it. I mean, if you have to tax, I think it’s as good a concept as you could get. Let’s put it that way. I don’t see a downside to that. Obviously once we get some experience with it, we’ll be able to analyze it better."

(Kinzel) Governor Jim Douglas has yet to throw his full support behind the compromise. Dill is hopeful that Douglas will sign the legislation:

(Dill) "My recommendation would be to accept this. However, I certainly realize that the governor has got to look at all the tax increases that may be coming to him through the General Fund."

(Kinzel) The House is set to consider the bill on Friday and legislative leaders are hopeful that the session will wrap up by late Saturday night.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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