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Va. House panel backs transportation funding bill

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's transportation funding package cleared its first major legislative hurdle Wednesday.

The House Finance Committee voted 13-8 to endorse the Republican governor's five-year, $3.1 billion plan and send it to the floor for a vote early next week.

"It's a good start," House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford and sponsor of the bill, said in an interview after the committee adopted a few relatively minor amendments and advanced the measure.

The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to consider a companion bill Thursday afternoon. If the House and Senate pass differing versions of the legislation, those differences will be worked out by a conference committee consisting of a few lawmakers from each chamber.

"The real work will be done if we get it into conference," Howell said.

McDonnell's proposal would eliminate the gas tax and raise the state sales tax from 5 percent to 5.8 percent, with the extra revenue going into transportation. It also would raise registration fees, impose a new $100 fee on alternative fuel vehicles and increase the portion of the sales tax already earmarked for highways. If Congress passes legislation giving states authority to collect sales taxes on out-of-state online and catalog sales, that money also would go to transportation.

"Today marks the first positive step forward in our effort to enact a long overdue, long-term transportation funding solution," McDonnell said in a written statement.

Howell acknowledged that there will still be attempts to change the bill. Many Democrats have complained about funneling more sales tax revenue into transportation, saying it drains funding from public education, health care, public safety and other priorities.