Despite some apparent disagreement recently, the House and Senate jointly crafted a final transportation package for the state by Wednesday afternoon, including increases in the gas and diesel tax.
The decision comes after the $632 million transportation bill narrowly avoided delays due to disagreements over how to balance diesel and gas tax hikes. House Transportation Chair Patrick Brennan, R-Colchester, wanted less in diesel tax increases, and a higher gas tax three or four years down the road, to keep tax revenues robust.
Senate Transportation Chair Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, wanted a smaller gas tax hike to lighten the burden on Vermonters who commute to work. In the end, the two committee chairs struck a compromise, after a meeting with Gov. Peter Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith yesterday afternoon, and a few more hours of negotiation.
The combined package raises the diesel tax by 3 cents per gallon over two years, instead of by 4 cents per gallon over two years, as the Senate initially approved late last week.
By fiscal year 2016, the gas tax increase would be 6.5 cents per gallon; the original House proposal increased the tax by 7.5 cents per gallon that year.
Mazza told his colleagues on the Senate floor that the House most importantly let go of a measure to chain the gas tax to inflation rates, which could have translated into automatic increases of about a quarter of a cent per gallon annually.
But on the House floor, Brennan noted that they’d set up a process whereby gas tax rates could be reviewed once every three years, in much the same way that fees charged by state agencies for services are adjusted on a periodic basis.
The House voted 107-36 on Wednesday morning to approve the package. Later in the same afternoon, the Senate passed the transportation package unanimously in a voice vote, meaning that the next stop for the transporation bill is the governor’s desk.
The state needed to raise about $36.5 million in transportation revenues to avoid losing out on about $56 million in federal transportation funds. Lawmakers turned to the gas tax for that funding, after examining a diverse menu of revenue sources.
Other items in the bill include about $4 million in budget cuts, which the Shumlin administration and lawmakers have held inflict no substantive pain to the transportation system or its users.
The bill also continues $7 million in subsidies for Amtrak, along with about $10.3 million in one-time bonding, and studies on how electric, hybrid, and natural gas powered vehicles can contribute revenues to the state’s transportation fund, studies due by December 2013.
Rep. Don Turner, the Republican House Minority Leader, said in a statement that H.510 “lacks responsible options for funding our transportation infrastructure.”
“More than 13,000 Vermonter’s [sic] have voiced their opposition to the increase in the gas tax, yet this bill not only includes an increase in the gas tax, but also increases the diesel tax as well,” Turner wrote. “Once again, Working Vermonter’s [sic] will be the one’s shouldering the burden of this choice. Vermont’s small businesses along the New Hampshire and Massachusetts’s borders are already at a significant disadvantage and these tax increases will only expand upon these disadvantages.”
Members of the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate say the state can’t leave $56 million on the table at a time when the state’s infrastructure is in need of repair.
Editor’s note: This story was updated with a quote from Don Milton at 7 a.m. April 25.