The General Assembly adjourned on schedule this year, immediately after approving both a package of amendments to the 2012-2014 Biennial Budget and higher taxes to fund transportation. While those two measures garnered most of the headlines, more than 800 bills have been approved and forwarded to the Governor. I was disappointed that I could not support the final transportation plan. A plan that had left the House of Delegates raising taxes by around $500 million returned as a $1.2 billion tax increase, the second largest in state history. The package raises taxes on everyone statewide by $680 million and dedicates $200 million in existing revenues from the General Fund to transportation. Residents who live Hampton Roads will be paying another $200 million in taxes on top of their statewide share, while those in Northern Virginia will be adding another $350 million to that total. For those in our area, it will raise the tax on and increase the cost of just about everything. The sales tax will increase to 5.3%. The tax on buying a vehicle will go from 3% to 4.3%. And because the tax on diesel fuel, consumed primarily by those who truck the goods we buy to the stores from which we buy them, will be increased to 6% on the wholesale price, you should anticipate an increase in prices. Initially, the 17.5 cents per gallon tax on gasoline at the pump will be replaced by a 3.5% tax assessed at the wholesale level. But if the federal government does not pass legislation allowing taxes to be collected on internet sales, that rate will rise to 5.1%, which is not a savings. Perhaps most illogical, those who drive hybrid or alternative fuel vehicles will be assessed a new yearly fee of $100. So after these individuals pay a higher titling tax when they purchase these vehicles that cost thousands of dollars more than conventionally powered vehicles, they will be subjected to an extra annual tax. Our current economic recovery is very fragile. Unemployment still hovers around 8%, and employers large and small are dealing with the new costs associated with the implementation of Obamacare. I believe it would be wrong to add to these challenges by increasing taxes on families at this time. Of additional concern, the General Assembly once again rejected protecting the Transportation Trust Fund. Legislation that would have ensured the taxes paid into this fund cannot be used for anything other than transportation was defeated in the closing days of the session. So while taxes are being increased by $1.2 billion, the people of Virginia cannot be assured that the dollars designated to transportation aren’t guaranteed to go to transportation. I understand why some of my colleagues voted for this plan. I, too, would have liked to have voted in favor of a transportation funding plan like the one proposed by Senator Steve Newman that dedicated more funding to transportation but would not have resulted in families…..
With just one week remaining before the General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn, there has been a lot of activity in Richmond. Conferees were selected to negotiate amendments to the state’s biennial budget and the transportation funding packages. A lot of legislation has either been approved and sent onto the Governor or defeated. And, the week marked St. Valentine’s Day, which invariably results in the General Assembly Building being awash in chocolate for a few days. Discussions on the two highest profile issues of the session, amending the 2012-2104 Biennial Budget and approving a transportation funding plan, moved to smaller groups this week. Since the House and Senate approved different versions of House Bills 1300 and 2313, respectively known as Amendments to the Budget and the Transportation Funding Plan, committees of conference were appointed to negotiate the differences between the two chambers. Committees of conference are appointed on every measure where House and Senate versions of legislation disagree. Sometimes the differences are quite small, and the conferees – the term used here for negotiators – reach quick agreement. In other cases, the disagreements are rather substantial. In those instances, negotiators have to work for days to find consensus. And although the conferees are negotiating on behalf of their respective chambers, that is no guarantee the result will be approved by both the House and the Senate as required. Ordinarily, the disagreements over the budget, which has scores of differences between the versions approved by the two chambers, are the most contentious. This year, however, the widest gulf is on the transportation package. Other than increasing the annual registration fee by $15 and sending that money to build the Metro system’s link to Dulles Airport and other rail systems, the proposals have little in common. The House’s plan eliminates the gas tax while the Senate’s increases it and allows it to increase with inflation. This is not a small difference, and the conferees on this measure have their work cut out for them. More of my bills won approval this week. House Bill 2137, which would relax a mandate on local government, won approval in the Senate. House Bill 2154, which expands the Virginia Workforce Council’s scope of inquiry and recommendations to more broadly address the entire spectrum of workforce development, was also approved by the Senate. The Senate also approved House Bill 2316, an important change to public procurement rules for Lynchburg Regional Airport. The Senate’s versions of these bills are slightly different from the ones approved by the House, which will delay their journeys to the Governor by a few days. Overall, my legislation is doing remarkably well this year. Of the nine measures I introduced, two have already been sent to the Governor, three have been approved by both bodies with slight differences to be resolved, and four are awaiting action in the Senate. Visitors keep coming to Richmond in the final weeks of session. This week, Dr. John Capps, President of…..
Some of the biggest issues of the session were debated this week, making for one event-filled day after another. The Governor’s transportation plan was up for a vote on the House floor on Tuesday. Crossover, the halfway mark of the legislative calendar came that day, too. And on Thursday, the House and the Senate approved different versions of amendments to the state’s two-year budget. The debate over the Governor’s transportation plan was lengthy and extensively detailed. The House ultimately approved the measure by a vote of 53 to 46. The annual $100 fee I mentioned in last week’s column was removed from the bill, which made it sufficiently attractive to secure enough votes for passage. The Senate’s inability to approve a transportation plan was a disappointment, as one of the bills they were considering was a proposal I would support. The plan, promoted by Senator Steve Newman, includes many of the features of Governor McDonnell’s proposal. But, it doesn’t include the hybrid vehicle fee or the increase in registration fees. And instead of increasing the sales tax on everything to eliminate the gas tax, the plan would replace the current flat rate of 17.5 cents per gallon on gas with a percentage rate on gas. The passage by the House of Governor McDonnell’s plan means that the transportation issue is still alive during this session. Now, the Senate has a House bill to consider. The House’s version of amendments to the state’s two-year budget was approved on Thursday and included something of great importance to the City of Lynchburg. Funding for Lynchburg’s combined sewer overflow, more commonly referred to as CSO, was included in a bonding package in the House’s amendments to the budget. The Senate, too, had its version of funding for the project. This wouldn’t have been possible without the strong support of our region’s delegation or the City’s success in finding a more cost-efficient way to address the problem. Budget negotiators for the House and Senate have until the end of session to work out the differences between the plans approved by the respective chambers. As I noted, Crossover occurred this week so we are now considering bills sponsored by senators while the Senate considers those filed by delegates. Two of my bills, House Bills 2118 and 2155, have already made it through the process in the Senate and have been approved. House Bill 2118 deals with protections for insurance policy holders and House Bill 2155 makes some technical changes necessary to allow for the proper administration of the insurance premium license tax. Both bills are headed to Governor McDonnell for his review. We saw a lot of visitors this week. Pastor Jonathan Falwell of Thomas Road Baptist Church was in town, and I had the honor of introducing him to entire House. Jason Schonfelder, Administrator for the Church came by, too. Ryan Buck from Areva and Phyllis Everett from Centra were here, too. Catharine Carty, Lauren Flynt, Mark Courtney…..
This week saw unseasonably warm temperatures come to Richmond, immediately followed by the customarily frigid temperatures that bring in the month of February. We are now at the halfway point of the General Session, and during the week ahead we will pass crossover and both the House and Senate will consider their respective versions of legislation amending the state’s two-year budget. As a result, the week to come is one of the most eventful of the General Assembly session. Most of the discussions in the House of Delegates were about Governor McDonnell’s proposed transportation funding package. The package came before the House Finance Committee and won its recommendation, sending the plan to the full House for consideration. As a member of the House Finance Committee, I was one of those who voted against the legislation. I understand the need to increase funding for transportation and have repeatedly voted for measures that would do so, but there are features of the Governor’s proposal I cannot support. First, the plan would increase the annual registration fee on vehicles by $15. While this may not sound like a lot, the increase would make the cost of registering a car in Virginia higher than in all but a handful of states. Moreover, the state increased the vehicle registration fee by $10 just six years ago. The bill includes another new fee to which I object, assessing owners of alternative fuel and hybrid vehicles an additional $100 every year. This fee seems particularly unfair and illogical. People who purchase hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles usually pay a premium to do so, as the latest technology invariably costs more. That means the state already collects more money at the time these vehicles are purchased, through the titling tax. People purchase hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles precisely because they want to save money in the long term, benefiting from higher mileage and reduced fuel costs. To penalize this decision, particularly when the state benefits from greater revenue when the vehicles are purchased, strikes me as unfair and counterproductive. As many ideas and plans progress through the process this week, I look forward to finding consensus on a transportation plan that increases long term funding that addresses our maintenance and transportation needs. Two of my bills, House Bills 2138 and 2154 were approved by the House this week and are headed to the Senate for their consideration. House Bill 2138 establishes a Health Insurance Reform Commission, eliminating the Mandated Benefit Commission. This would reduce the size of the original commission. As the federal government continues to roll out regulations on the Affordable Health Care Act, this committee would be an oversight committee keeping informed of the effects and impact on the health insurance market in Virginia. House Bill 2154 will expand the advisory authority of the Virginia Workforce Council and allow the Council to review federal and state funded workforce programs to assist and advise the Governor in meeting workforce training needs. We saw a lot of visitors…..
Article in the Lynchburg News and Advance about a couple of my bills which passed last week.