Gas tax hike safe politically, analysis says

Gas tax hike safe politically, analysis says
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Almost all state lawmakers who have voted to raise gas taxes in states that increased their own fuel levies in recent years have been re-elected, according to an analysis that was released Tuesday by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA). 

Ninety-five percent of Republicans and 88 percent of Democrats who voted to raise gas taxes in their states in 2013 and 2014 were re-elected in last fall’s election, according to the analysis. 

The road builders group said the results show lawmakers in Congress could vote to raise the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax without facing any political recuperations. 

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“This analysis shows two things members of Congress need to know,” ARTBA President Pete Ruane said in a statement.  “First, a bipartisan majority can be found to increase transportation investment if the leadership of both parties actually lead—rather than play politics—and give their colleagues a chance to vote.   Second, if legislators are honest with their constituents and clearly explain why a gas tax increase is necessary and important and what benefits their constituents will derive from it, they have little reason to fear the ballot box over a gas tax vote.”

The group said its analysis of the political fortunes of lawmakers who supported gas tax increases is based on the election returns of seven states that passed local hikes in 2013 and 2014: Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont, Wyoming and New Hampshire. 

The states were part of a series that have moved to increase their local gas tax in recent years as federal transportation funding has dried up.

Lawmakers are currently facing a May 31 deadline for the expiration of federal transportation funding, and they are struggling to come up with a way to pay for an extension of the measure. 

Transportation advocates in Washington like the road builders have pointed to the willingness of Republican states to raise their own gas tax as evidence that a national hike would be politically palatable this year. 

Conservative groups in Washington have made clear they would consider an increase in the federal fuel levy a tax hike, however.

The road builders’ group said its analysis of state elections show it is safe for lawmakers to vote increase gas taxes over those objections, however. 

“A total 1,385 state legislators cast votes on gas tax measures, the analysis found,” the group said. “Of those voting, 191 were registered as signing the Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) state pledge “to oppose (and vote against/veto) any efforts to increase taxes”—180 Republicans and 11 Democrats.  Thirteen percent of the signees ignored the ATR and supported increased revenue for transportation improvements, the analysis found.  Only one legislator who defied the ATR and sought re-election was not returned to office.”  

The gas tax has been the main source of transportation funding for decades, but it has not been increased since 1993, sapping its buying power.

While the tax hike has backing from business associations and unions, opposition from conservative groups, such as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth, led GOP leaders in the House to call it a nonstarter.

The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects, but the gas tax will only bring in $34 billion annually without an increase.  

The Department of Transportation has said that its Highway Trust Fund will have to stop making payments to state governments for construction projects that are already underway if Congress does not come to an agreement on an extension in the next couple of weeks.