Conservatives to GOP: Pump the brakes on gas tax hike

Conservatives to GOP: Pump the brakes on gas tax hike
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A conservative group is criticizing Republican leaders in the Senate for suggesting they might be open to an increase in the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax. 

As prices have fallen to their lowest levels since 2008 in recent weeks, transportation advocates have been pushing for the first gas tax increase since 1993 to help pay for a new long-term infrastructure bill that has stalled in Washington. 

The Alexandria, Va.-based Citizens for the Republic group said Tuesday that increasing the amount that drivers are charged at the pump for their gas prices would be a bad idea. 

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“Declining gas prices are granting consumers sorely needed economic relief and opportunity, the kind this government has consistently failed to provide over the last six years,” Diana Banister said in a statement.  

“It is utterly shameful that government and especially Republicans are moving to immediately steal that opportunity from the consumer in order to pad its own wallet,” she continued.

The comments came in response to statements that were made over the weekend by new Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneRove warns Senate GOP: Don't put only focus on base Leaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions MORE (R-S.D.). 

Thune said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday” that lawmakers will need to "keep all options" available when asked about a proposal from Sens. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDems demand answers following explosive new Cohen report Dem senators debate whether to retweet Cardi B video criticizing Trump over shutdown Cardi B expresses solidarity with federal workers not getting paid MORE (D-Conn.) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerThe Memo: Romney moves stir worries in Trump World Senate GOP names first female members to Judiciary panel Former US special envoy to anti-ISIS coalition joins Stanford University as lecturer MORE (R-Tenn.) to increase the gas tax by 12 cents over the next two years. 

"I don't favor increasing any tax," Thune said during the Sunday interview. "But I think we have to look at all options."

Lawmakers have been struggling with finding a way to pay for a new multi-year transportation funding bill for years. The last long-term infrastructure measure was approved in 2005, with lawmakers only approving temporary patches, including the current eight-month package, since then. 

The gas tax, which predates the development of the Interstate Highway System by nearly two decades, has been the primary source for federal transportation projects since its creation in the 1930s.

Receipts from the gas tax have been outpaced by transportation expenses by about $16 billion annually in recent years as construction costs have risen and cars have become more fuel efficient.

The current level of federal spending on transportation is about $50 billion per year, but the gas tax only brings in about $34 billion annually at its current rate.

Transportation advocates have argued that increasing the gas tax for the first since 1993 would be the easiest way to close the gap. Lawmakers have been reluctant to ask drivers to pay more at the pump, however, making a gas tax increase politically toxic. 

Congress has instead turned to other areas of the federal budget in recent years to close the gap in lieu of asking drivers to pay more at the pump. However, critics say the temporary bandages are contributing to a weakened national infrastructure.

Citizens for the Republic’s Banister said Tuesday that charging drivers more at the pump after years of elevated gas prices is not the solution. 

“Deficit spending and the debt need to be reined in and controlled, but that must begin with the government looking inward. It must first look to its own internal waste, abuse, and fraud,” she said. “Only afterwards can it reasonably ask for more from the individual.  This habit of instinctively taking from the American people is reprehensible, especially when the idea comes from self-proclaimed Conservatives.”

Congress had a chance to pass a multi-year transportation funding package last year, but lawmakers could not agree on a way to pay for more than a couple of months’ worth of projects, resulting in a temporary extension that lasts only until May 2015.

The nearly $11 billion measure, which reauthorized the collection of the gas tax but did not increase it, was intended only to prevent a bankruptcy in the Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund.

The trust fund had been scheduled to run out of money in September without congressional action.

Transportation advocates criticized the conservative group for attacking lawmakers who are open to considering a gas tax hike in the new Congress.

“It’s clear there is bipartisan recognition that gas taxes should be adjusted, consistent with the user-fee principle, to sustainably fund infrastructure across the United States,” Association of Equipment Manufacturers Michael O’Brien said in a statement provided to The Hill.

“Gas prices are at a record low, and Congress should seize the opportunity to fund our infrastructure while we can be sensitive to consumers,” O’Brien continued. “It’s incumbent upon conservative naysayers to offer up constructive alternatives to fund infrastructure, but unfortunately, they have none.”

Advocates had suggested that the recently completed lame-duck session would have been the best time for lawmakers to raise the gas tax, because it would be more politically viable. However, lawmakers showed little appetite for tackling the proposed hike before they wrapped up the 113th Congress. 

— Updated at 11:47 a.m.

 — Kevin Cirilli contributed to this report.