Senate gives preliminary approval to transportation bill

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(Host) The Senate has given preliminary approval to a transportation bill for next year that doesn’t include a gas tax increase.

Instead, the Senate has voted to tap $7 million in one-time surplus money to help the state take advantage of $100 million in new federal transportation funds.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) The challenge facing the state is straightforward. If Vermont wants to take full advantage of $100 million in new federal transportation funds, the state needs to raise an additional $25 million next year in matching money.

When the House considered this bill last month, it raised transportation related fees by roughly $6 million and it raised the gas tax by four cents-a-gallon.

Senate Transportation chairman Dick Mazza told his colleagues on the Senate floor that he had two major goals with this bill.

(Mazza) “There are two messages we heard loud and clear. One was please don’t allow any of those funds to be sent back to Washington. Take advantage of it because we certainly need the work done. And the other was please don’t raise our fuel taxes any more than they are now. They’re the highest they’ve been in many years. We tried to address those concerns. We did address those concerns.”

(Kinzel) The Senate bill raises more than $11 million in fees and it takes $7 million in surplus money from a variety of smaller state funds including $3 million from the weatherization program.

Senate Appropriations chairwoman Susan Bartlett says there’s no question that this decision will have an impact on next year’s state budget.

(Bartlett) “Well it’s very simple, Mr. President. Everybody’s going to get dinged because taking an additional $7 million out of the General Fund at this point in time means that frequently there’s some one time money. And that’s where lots of all the little projects and favorite things that people like. So people who won’t studies or there’s some extra one time money going here that’s gone!”

(Kinzel) The measure is scheduled to come up for final approval in the Senate on Wednesday. Then a House Senate conference committee will be named to negotiate a final compromise.

It’s expected that the House will put up a strong fight for the gas tax increase because they think it represents a more sustainable funding solution to the state’s 5-year transportation plan.

For Vermont Public Radio I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

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