Under the Dome

Wake transit tax plan gets reprieve in NC Senate budget

Passengers Connie Benton, heading to WakeMed, left, and Karen Webster, heading to Rex, right, both of Raleigh, braved the early morning cold before sunrise at the downtown Raleigh Capital Area Transit terminal in February. The N.C. Senate agreed Wednesday to allow Wake authority to hold a half-cent sales tax referendum for improved transit.
Passengers Connie Benton, heading to WakeMed, left, and Karen Webster, heading to Rex, right, both of Raleigh, braved the early morning cold before sunrise at the downtown Raleigh Capital Area Transit terminal in February. The N.C. Senate agreed Wednesday to allow Wake authority to hold a half-cent sales tax referendum for improved transit. clowenst@newsobserver.com

The N.C. Senate voted unanimously Wednesday to remove a budget provision that would have prevented Wake County from having a half-cent sales tax referendum to pay for transit.

Wake commissioners are hoping to put a half-cent transit sales tax on the referendum ballot in 2016. But the Senate legislation would allow counties to increase the tax rate by only one-quarter cent at a time. That would have meant Wake would need two separate elections to have a half-cent transit sales tax.

A budget amendment proposed by Sen. John Alexander, a Raleigh Republican, inserted an exception for Wake to keep its existing authority for a half-cent sales tax hike. It would, however, require Wake to hold the ballot referendum by December 2016, and the county wouldn’t be allowed to use state funds on any light rail projects.

Wake County transit planners eliminated light rail – electric-powered trains that can run on tracks or on streets – from consideration earlier this year, calling it inflexible and expensive. Instead, they’re looking at “rail rapid transit” trains that would consist of rail cars called diesel multiple units – with each car powered by its own diesel engine.

Sen. Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat, said he backs Alexander’s change. “This fixes half of our problem,” he said. Blue proposed a second amendment that would have allowed Wake’s local sales tax to go as high as 2.75 percent – above the 2.5 percent cap in the Senate budget bill.

Blue’s proposal failed in a 18-30 vote, mostly along party lines. Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg County Republican, said letting Wake have a higher tax than other counties wouldn’t be fair.

“We can have a system where every county can be treated the same” under the Senate budget, he said.

Last summer, Senate leaders sought to eliminate Wake’s transit tax option altogether. The legislature ended up in a compromise that precluded a referendum in 2015 but left Wake with the ability to schedule the vote next year.

Staff writer Bruce Siceloff contributed to this report.

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