GOP-led states show willingness to raise gas tax
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.