By PHIL KABLER
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — One portion of Gov. Jim Justice’s $2.7 billion highways construction bonds plan advanced from Senate Finance Committee to the full Senate Tuesday.
The committee advanced Justice’s legislation to raise the excise tax on gasoline by 4.5 cents a gallon to 25 cents, and increase a number of Division of Motor Vehicle fees, many of which have not been raised since the 1970s, to raise about $131 million a year. That includes raising vehicle registration fees from $28.50 to $50 a year.
That revenue could underwrite one of three road bonds the governor wants to issue to raise in the neighbor of $2.7 billion for road and transportation projects (SB477).
Joey Garcia, senior policy counsel for the governor, said the new revenue would help underwrite a $1.6 billion road bond that would have to be approved by the voters.
Other components of the plan include pending bills to allow the state Parkways Authority to continue and raise tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike and any future toll roads in the state, for a $400 million to $600 million bond issue, and to raise the amount of GARVEE bonds the Division of Highways may issue from the current $200 million to $500 million.
Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, raised concerns that the governor’s plan raises various funding sources for the road bonds, but does not address immediate concerns for maintenance on existing state roads.
Transportation Secretary Tom Smith said about $1 billion of the governor’s plan would be dedicated to various road maintenance projects.
“The governor’s program does have a large number of dollars dedicated to preservation and maintenance,” Smith said.
Also Tuesday, the committee postponed consideration of a bill to eliminate a $15 million annual state subsidy for greyhound purse funds, and to eliminate a requirement that the state’s two greyhound racetrack casinos offer live racing in order to keep state video lottery and table games licenses (SB347), to resolve issues on whether the legislation would cut off contributions to racetrack employee pension funds from state video lottery profits.
Louis Southworth, lobbyist for the West Virginia Racing Association, said nothing in the bill would prevent that money from going into the pension funds, since both Wheeling Island and Mardi Gras racetracks would continue to be licensed by the state Racing Commission in order to continue wagering on simulcasts of races at other tracks at the casinos.
In a related issue, the House Finance Committee originated a bill to eliminate the Racetrack Modernization Fund, a fund created in 2011 to provide matching funds for the state’s casinos to upgrade gaming areas.
The bill is the latest attempt by the Legislature to eliminate the fund, which provides $9 million to $10 million a year of Lottery surplus funds, with a $1 state match for every $2 spent by the casinos.
Legislators originally created the fund to help the state’s four racetrack casinos and the casino at The Greenbrier compete with larger, more modern casinos that were opening in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
The funds primarily have been used to buy new slot machines, although other uses have included construction of an outdoor gaming pavilion at Mountaineer Racetrack and Casino to compensate for an indoor smoking ban in Hancock County.
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