GOP-led states show will­ing­ness to raise gas tax

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Nation & World - BY DAVID LIGHTMAN dlight­[email protected]­clatchydc.com David Lightman: 202-365-5241, @light­man­david

Higher state gaso­line taxes have won ap­proval in seven Re­pub­li­can-run states since Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump took of­fice, an un­usual step for a party adamantly op­posed to more taxes and a sign that rais­ing the fed­eral gaso­line tax may no longer be po­lit­i­cally dam­ag­ing.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has not ruled out an in­crease, and most con­gres­sional Democrats are en­thu­si­as­tic about the idea.

The will­ing­ness to raise gaso­line taxes is counter to the one ma­jor pol­icy po­si­tion that has united Re­pub­li­cans around the nation for more than 30 years: No new or higher taxes.

Re­pub­li­can sup­port­ers in the af­fected states ex­plain that con­stituents are de­mand­ing bet­ter roads and bridges, and the gas tax can be shown to pro­duce a tan­gi­ble ben­e­fit.

“Roads were just so bad they had to do some­thing,” said David Woodard, a Re­pub­li­can con­sul­tant in Clem­son, South Carolina, of his state’s de­ci­sion.

The South Carolina leg­is­la­ture two years ago ap­proved in­creas­ing the gaso­line tax by 2 cents per year for six years to 28.75 cents a gal­lon by 2022. Gov. Henry Mc­Mas­ter ve­toed the plan but the Re­pub­li­can-led leg­is­la­ture over­rode the veto. The tax had last been in­creased 30 years ear­lier and was the nation’s sec­ond low­est.

Democrats are quick to cite the GOP tax in­creases in the Trump states, and main­tain they won wide­spread sup­port be­cause weak in­fra­struc­ture has wide im­pact. Peo­ple at all in­come lev­els “suf­fer from dam­age to their cars and are stuck in traffic for hours, burn­ing gas and not get­ting to work,” said Rep. Earl Blu­me­nauer, an Ore­gon Demo­crat and lead­ing ad­vo­cate for new in­fra­struc­ture rev­enue sources.

The seven states — South Carolina, Ohio, Arkansas, Alabama, In­di­ana, Ten­nessee and Ok­la­homa — not only have had Re­pub­li­can gov­er­nors and leg­is­la­tures since 2017, but Trump won all seven eas­ily in 2016.

In an eighth state, West Vir­ginia, the Repub­li­can­run leg­is­la­ture adopted a gas tax in­crease in 2017, and it was signed into law that June by Gov. Jim Jus­tice, then a Demo­crat. Five weeks later, he be­came a Re­pub­li­can.

When Congress re­turns later this month from its spring re­cess, law­mak­ers are ex­pected to try to craft a pro­posal to im­prove in­fra­struc­ture, one of the few ar­eas where the White House and Democrats are some­what hope­ful they can find com­mon ground.

“We are go­ing to meet,” said Sen­ate Mi­nor­ity Leader Chuck Schumer, re­fer­ring to a po­ten­tial meet­ing in the next few weeks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Cal­i­for­nia, and Trump to talk about in­fra­struc­ture.

Asked whether he was will­ing to raise the gas tax, Schumer would not dis­cuss specifics, though the New York Demo­crat added, “We be­lieve we want to put re­ally sig­nif­i­cant money in there, okay?”

The big­gest ob­sta­cle is where to get that money. The fed­eral gaso­line tax of 18.4 cents a gal­lon and the diesel tax of 24.4 cents a gal­lon were last raised in 1993. Asked at a Sen­ate hear­ing last month whether she and Trump would be re­cep­tive to rais­ing the gas tax, Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary Elaine Chao said “noth­ing is off the ta­ble.”

Most fed­eral spend­ing on high­ways and mass tran­sit is sup­posed to come from the High­way Trust Fund, which gets rev­enue from the gas tax and other sources. But since 2008, the tax has not been able to cover the costs, so money has been transferre­d from the gen­eral bud­get.

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