In the long-running battle to unlock some local funding for a regional transportation network, two big tumblers fell into place this morning in the House Finance committee. State Reps. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, and Jennifer Weiss, D-Wake, both co-chairs of the panel, voted in favor of House Bill 148, which includes the 1/2-cent sales tax for transit provision. Luebke and Weiss, progressive stalwarts, continue to dislike the regressive sales tax as a way to pay for anything, and dislike is putting it mildly. Luebke’s yes vote was cast “reluctantly,” he said. Weiss’s, she said, “gives me heartburn.” Still, their support for transit — and some progressive changes around the bill’s edges since it passed the House Transportation Committeee — outweighed their opposition to paying for transit with a sales tax, they said.

With Luebke and Weiss on board, the Finance Committee voted 19-6 in favor of the bill, which could now be put to a final vote on the House floor — sources say — as early as next week. Five of the six opponents were Republicans. Which means the disparate Democratic factions (progressive, moderate, rural, urban) that comprise the House majority have coalesced, making House passage likely, to be followed by Senate passage and Gov. Perdue’s signature. Then the fun really starts, because this bill merely authorizes the three Triangle counties to conduct referenda — three of them, either together or separately — on whether to actually have the 1/2-cent sales tax.

One of the progressive changes that Weiss, especially, worked hard to get is a provision “allowing” the companies in RTP to tax themselves for transit improvements. The original legislation that established RTP put a cap on the tenant companies’ property tax rate. Now, they’ll be allowed — the tenants association, that is — to draw up a transit plan and dun themselves up to a total of about $4 million a year to pay for it (by contracting with Triangle Transit). Among Weiss’s and Luebke’s objections to the sales-tax approach is that consumers pay it but corporations don’t — as Luebke said today, a 1/2-cent sales tax on consumers in the three Triangle counties will exact some $90 million from them, versus the $4 million or less that RTP’s businesses will kick in, and little or nothing from Triange companies that are not in RTP.. Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, who’s championed the bill in the House, countered that while sales tax will be the front-end mechanism for transit financing, down the line — when there’s transit — higher property taxes will come in from the businesses that locate along the corridors to take advantage of it. She didn’t add, but might have, that state and federal funding should follow as well once the sales tax is in place.

The House panel passed the bill after rejecting an amendment offered by Rep. Larry Hall, D-Durham, which would’ve blocked state funding of a Triangle transit system unless and until all three counties — not just one or two — put the sales tax in place. The amendment was the brainchild of Durham Mayor Bill Bell, who last week warned against a “regional” plan that Wake County dominates with its sales-tax money while Durham and perhaps Orange, too, holds back over the regressive sales-tax issue. But Ross said Wake “shouldn’t be penalized” for moving ahead just because Durham doesn’t — though she added, “it is our great” that the three counties will move ahead in concert.

The vote on the amendment was 5-18, with Hall and Luebke on the losing end. Both then joined the majority on the bill.

The other progressive change to the bill, hailed by Luebke, strengthened the language calling for affordable-housing to be included in developments near transit stops. According to Bill Rowe of the N.C. Justice Center, the bill now requires that local housing and transit plans be linked, rather than simply exist in separate places.