After Ohio's gas tax hike, another may be coming

By MALIA RULON, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - As Ohio motorists face a 2-cent state gas tax increase, a fight is shaping up in Congress this summer over raising the federal gas tax as well.

House Transportation Chairman Don Young of Alaska is considering almost doubling the federal gasoline tax, raising it from 18.4 cents per gallon to more than 33 cents by 2009. He says it has not been raised since 1993 and is needed to pay for highways and mass transportation.

Consumer groups and lawmakers from both parties oppose the hike, saying it's a bad idea during the current economic downturn and when gas prices are fluctuating and oil supplies may be interrupted by the war with Iraq.

Ohio Gov. Bob Taft just signed into law a state gas tax increase that will increase the rate 2 cents every year for the next three years. The third-year raise could be canceled if Ohio's share of
federal money is increased.

The three Ohio lawmakers on the House and Senate transportation committees wince at the mention of the word "tax," but they all agree that to get more money back for Ohio, gas taxes may be part of the final solution.

"I do not like taxes. I hate taxes, and right now, with the cost of oil the way it is, every penny counts," said Sen. George Voinovich, a Republican member of the Senate Subcommittee on
Transportation and Infrastructure. "On the other hand, Ohio is big, big, big in transportation and
trucking and we have a problem. We have got to do something to make sure that we have the money for our highways."

Although ranked 35th in the nation by geographic size, Ohio has the fourth largest interstate network that carries the fourth largest amount of truck traffic. The state is within a 600-mile drive of half of the nation's population and is considered a crossroad for America's manufacturing and agricultural industries.

Reps. Steve LaTourette and Bob Ney, Ohio Republicans who are members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the state has countless roads and bridges in need of repair and other byways still waiting to be built.

They said they are open to a federal gas tax increase.

Young's proposal is seen as the high-end limit for how much the tax will be. He is asking fellow lawmakers and construction industry and labor officials to back a one-time increase to cover inflation and more than 2 cents more a year for six years.

Together, the state gas tax raise and Young's proposal would mean an extra 20 cents per gallon at the pump by 2009 for Ohio motorists. Voinovich said he expects the tax to ultimately be less, likely somewhere in the middle.

Young's proposal would generate $375 billion for highways and mass transit over the next six years. Under his plan, Ohio's yearly allotment would rise nearly 60 percent, from about $950 million to $1.5 billion. Every state would receive more under Young's plan, which would cost the average motorist $25 a year, his office said.

"The dollars that are wasted because of sitting in traffic and because of ruined vehicles and because of not being able to get to work far exceeds any gas tax increase that we are talking about," said LaTourette, of Madison, who supports, at minimum, an increase in the federal gas tax to adjust for inflation, which would be about 5 cents.

The current six-year highway program, which was funded at $218 billion, expires this year, and it's the job of transportation committee members to decide how much should be spent on highways for the next six years and how to pay for it.

"Can we do a bill without a gas tax? Sure. Will it be as big? No," said Ney, who is from St. Clairsville. "I'm open to looking at the option of a federal gas tax."

Increasing the federal gas tax is likely to be a contentious issue as lawmakers from different states disagree on how to divide the money.

"It is going to be a challenge," said Matthew Jeanneret, a spokesman for the Washington-based American Road and Transportation Builders Association, which represents more than 5,000 contractors, transportation officials, traffic safety workers and equipment manufacturers.

Jeanneret said an increase in the federal gas tax likely would not have the support to go into effect earlier than 2004. Jeanneret said he believes Americans are supportive of a tax increase if it would provide relief from traffic congestion.

Pete Sepp of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Taxpayers Union, disagreed.

"They can talk about them being 'user fees' or only a few cents a gallon, but the American public knows what they really are," Sepp said.

The gas tax is closely tied to how much money Ohio will get back from the federal government for highway spending compared to how much it collects in taxes.

Ohio is called a "donor" state because it currently gets back about 88 cents for every dollar it collects in federal gas taxes. The state has received less back from the federal government than
it collects every year since 1956. The rationale is that more populated states should help pay for a national highway system that runs through less populated states.

This year, the Ohio Department of Transportation has set its goal at taking home 95 cents for every dollar collected, spokesman Brian Cunningham said.

Voinovich and LaTourette are hoping for between 90 cents and 95 cents, they said. Ney said he is just hoping to get more than the current amount.

"It really depends on what the size of the bill is in order for us to solve the 'donor' state problem in a way that doesn't make the other states squeal like pigs," LaTourette said.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)