Senate divided over proposed gas tax increase

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(Host) The future of a proposed gas tax increase will be debated in the Senate Appropriations committee this week.

As VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports, Senate leaders are sharply divided over it.

(Kinzel) In order to take full advantage of nearly $100 million in new federal transportation funds, the state of Vermont needs to raise roughly $25 million in matching money.

There’s a general consensus at the Statehouse that it would be a big mistake not to leverage all of the available federal money. The question is how to raise the state’s share.

The House boosted the gas tax by four cents-a-gallon and increased a variety of transportation related fees to raise the money.

The Senate Transportation committee late Friday afternoon rejected the gas tax hike. Instead the panel called for more fees than the House and it proposed shifting $7 million of the Public Safety Department’s budget from the Transportation Fund over to the General Fund.

Transportation chairman Dick Mazza says he doesn’t want to cut Public Safety programs. He just wants the General Fund to pay for them. It’s a move that will free up money for this bill.

(Mazza) “All we’re saying is that there are areas that we’re funding presently which could be put back in the Transportation Fund but we have no intention of cutting the budget of the state police.”

(Kinzel) Senate Appropriations chairwoman Susan Bartlett says there’s no extra money in the General Fund to cover the transfer. So she says lawmakers have two choices – increase the gas tax or cobble together a $7 million package of one time surplus funds from various programs.

(Bartlett) “One of my real concerns for not just the Transportation budget but for the General Fund budget this year is that a lot basic expenditures are being built on one time money, and experience tells us that’s a road to disaster. So my concern with using more one time money in the Transportation bill is that it absolutely guarantees we start it in a deficit next year.”

(Kinzel) Bartlett prefers the gas tax option. She says 30% of the revenue is paid for by out-of-state drivers while motor vehicle fees are paid primarily by Vermonters.

(Bartlett) “Fees are hidden so people go, oh gee it doesn’t exist.’ When government is raising revenue it’s coming out of your pocket. So I don’t care what you call it, it’s still coming out of your pocket. And I then look for things where people have some discretion – where when we can have who visit the state and are using the roads can pay part of it. That works for me.”

(Kinzel) Bartlett says she hopes her committee will vote on this issue by the end of the week. The plan will then need to be reviewed by the Senate Finance committee before it comes up for debate on the Senate floor.

For Vermont Public Radio I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

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