By Alex Bridges
A state senator says he hopes a Republican majority in the legislature can protect transportation funding sources from raids for unrelated uses.
Sen. Mark D. Obenshain last week renewed his proposed amendment to the state constitution that would require the General Assembly to maintain permanent and separate transportation funds, to include the Commonwealth Transportation Fund, the Transportation Trust Fund, the Highway Maintenance and Operating Fund.
The proposal has failed in the past to receive the needed support from both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, Obenshain noted.
"It is my hope that with there being an apparent meaningful effort to try to address transportation spending this year that it will have a better chance of passage this year," Obenshain said in a phone interview Friday. "We also have a Republican majority in the state Senate this year. We did not before this past year."
The senator added that future revenue sources such as tolls could make the transportation trust fund even more attractive for raids.
"We just want to make sure that if there is gonna be a diversion of more funds into the Transportation Trust Fund that they are protected," Obenshain added.
Such a notion would not break new ground. The state already has the revenue stabilization fund, the lottery fund and the literary fund, each of which remains subject to constitutional protection. The General Assembly had to adopt an amendment to prevent raids on the lottery fund, Obenshain noted.
The debate over "locking up" transportation spending dates back at least to his first term in the legislature in 2004, Obenshain recalled. U.S. Sen.-elect Tim Kaine, during his bid for governor promised to lock down the transportation trust fund before he would approve any increase in roads spending, Obenshain noted.
"This year, with transportation really being a priority for members of the General Assembly, I think that it is time for us to finally swallow hard and link arms and make the commitment that we're gonna treat it as the trust fund that it is and lock up those transportation funds," Obenshain said. "Don't borrow them or spend them on other things. It is a trust fund and it oughta be spent for transportation."
The state earmarks certain revenues such as a tax on gasoline and puts the money into the transportation trust fund. A portion of the state sales tax also goes into the fund for transportation.
The state has dipped into the trust fund in the past.
"We have a not-so-proud history ... of raiding the Transportation Trust Tund for other things," Obenshain added.
The state has made at least three major raids of the trust fund in recent years, according to Obenshain. In the early 1990s the state took $173 million from the fund. In the 2000s the state diverted approximately $300 million in dedicated sales tax revenue to the general fund, replaced later with bonds, according to Obenshain.
"It sounds eerily like what we do with the so-called Social Security trust fund," Obenshain said.
The senator cited a third instance in which involved savings in the transportation money into the general fund. Obenshain did not provide an approximate figure for that transfer.
After the initial raid on the trust fund, the General Assembly created the Revenue Stabilization Fund, also referred to as the "rainy day fund," Obenshain noted. The legislature created the fund so the state would have an appropriate emergency source of money and wouldn't have to raid the trust fund, according to Obenshain.
The amendment as proposed would limit the use of the money in the funds to transportation and related uses. Revenue dedicated to transportation would be deposited into the fund unless the General Assembly alters the money allocated for those purposes, according to the proposal.
A constitutional amendment requires passage twice by the General Assembly, with a general election held between the actions. Then the General Assembly puts the proposed amendment on the ballot in next general election voters to decide. Obenshain said the measure could be out on the ballot no sooner than the general election in November 2014 if the General Assembly passes it in their 2013 and 2014 sessions.
As proposed, the amendment would let the General Assembly borrow from the transportation funds for unrelated purposes only by a vote of two-thirds plus one of the members voting in the House and Senate. The General Assembly must repay the loan with reasonable interest within four years.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org