2 Triangle lawmakers support transit tax

Half-cent levy, if voters approve, would fund bus and rail improvements

Staff WriterApril 16, 2009 

— Two Triangle Democrats set aside qualms about sales taxes Wednesday to endorse local-option transit legislation that is picking up steam in the House.

In a 19-6 vote, the House Finance Committee approved and sent to the House floor a bill that would allow three Triangle and two Triad urban counties to levy a half-cent sales tax -- if local voters agree -- to pay for regional bus and rail transit improvements. Rural counties could seek approval to levy a quarter-cent tax.

Rep. Paul Luebke of Durham, the committee's senior chairman, and Rep. Jennifer Weiss of Cary, a co-chairwoman, said the sales tax provision was an unfair burden on middle- and lower-income residents.

"Corporations pay virtually no sales tax," Luebke said. "So when we use a sales tax, we are not asking corporations to pay their fair share."

But both said they would back the legislation after it was amended to promote affordable housing near transit stations and to let Research Triangle Park employers pay up to $4.3 million a year in property taxes earmarked for transit improvements.

"A cluster of businesses in the park have shown their willingness to be part of funding transportation improvements and linking us to 21 {+s} {+t} century transit options," Weiss said after the vote.

In the Triangle, a half-cent sales tax would generate about $90 million a year for trains and buses.

Stam doesn't like it

Rep. Paul Stam of Apex, the House Republican leader, voted against the bill after raising a different kind of tax fairness issue. While North Carolinians can deduct property tax payments from their federal income tax returns, most taxpayers can't deduct sales taxes, he said.

The transit bill was introduced in 2008 but withdrawn after its sponsor, Rep. Becky Carney of Charlotte, feared for its prospects in Luebke's committee. Concern about gas prices and the state's relentless growth this year helped backers build support from an unusual coalition that includes environmentalists and advocates for the poor as well as business lobbies and highway builders.

"We wholeheartedly support this bill," Christie Barbee of the Carolina Asphalt Pavement Association told the finance committee. "We believe it is time for all North Carolina communities to have the tools and the revenue options necessary to address their transportation needs."

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527

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