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Legislators: $1.5B road bond issue likely dead

Feb. 23, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

CHARLESTON -- A proposed constitutional amendment that would let voters decide if they want to approve a $1.5 billion bond issue for highway construction and road repairs in West Virginia appears dead in the water with less than three weeks remaining in the 2012 regular session of the state legislature.

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, and Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, are all among the eight co-sponsors of Senate Joint Resolution 11 -- introduced Feb. 17 -- that would specifically pay for 18 pending major highway projects along with general highway construction and maintenance in all 55 counties.

"I've had absolutely no one indicate they want our committee to take up this issue," said Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha. The resolution, which would require a two-thirds majority vote in both the Senate and House of Delegates before it could be placed on this year's general election ballot in November, must be endorsed by Palumbo's committee and the Senate Finance Committee as well before it could be considered on the Senate floor.

"I really didn't expect that this amendment would get action this year," said the lead sponsor of the proposed constitutional amendment, Sen. Robert Beach, D-Monongalia. "I just wanted to get the discussion started. We all realize we've got to do something to increase funding for our highway system."

Even though no comparable joint resolution has been introduced in the House, some members there have indicated privately they believe this is the only other likely constitutional amendment that might be considered at this 60-day session ending at midnight Saturday, March 10.

Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, who chairs the House Constitutional Revision Committee, said she still hopes to conduct a public hearing on the issue of a new road bond issue the final week of the legislative session just to keep the idea alive. The next opportunity for a vote of the people would be at the 2014 general election.

The last road bond issue ratified by West Virginia voters was the Safe Roads Amendment of 1996. It passed by a margin of 372,335 votes in favor to 146,069 opposing votes. Beach said those bonds won't be paid off until 2025, but "we need to do something before then."

Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said he agrees that additional highway funding is a priority for the next few years. He noted that the Legislature passed Senate Bill A608 at the 2011 session to raise about $40 million annually in road user fees on license plates and driver's license renewals.

But then-acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who was running for election as governor, vetoed that legislation a few days after it gained legislative approval.

Some Huntington area legislators, when asked about their preferences of a tax increase versus a voter-approved bond issue, indicated they prefer a revenue bond approach.

"I'm definitely opposed to any new taxes, " said Delegate Kelli Soboyna, R-Cabell. "So I would certainly favor a bond issue."

Delegate Doug Reynolds, D-Cabell, said he realizes there is a need for more money to maintain and improve the state's highway system and that he believes it would be preferable to let the voters decide the issue.

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