Saturday, January 25, 2003

Taft urges 6 increase in fuel tax

Higher auto fees also to aid highways

By Spencer Hunt
and Shelley Davis
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - Gov. Bob Taft wants Ohioans to pay 6 cents more in taxes for a gallon of gas and fork over another $5 apiece to renew their driver's licenses and license plates - all to build and fix highways.

The gas tax increase, unveiled Friday, would be imposed in 2-cent increments each year over the next three years. It would cost an Ohioan whose car gets 25 miles per gallon an extra $24 for every 10,000 miles.

These were the the latest in a series of tax increases Mr. Taft has recently endorsed. In his Wednesday State of the State speech, he asked lawmakers to double alcohol taxes and raise cigarette taxes 45 cents a pack to erase a $720 million budget deficit.

Flanked by supportive transportation officials, the governor said the increased gas taxes and fees would keep alive major road projects over the next decade. He said those projects are desperately needed to help boost commerce, create new jobs, unclog urban traffic jams and save lives lost to traffic accidents.

"Our transportation system is the lifeblood of our economy," Mr. Taft said Friday. "It is the lifeblood of our quality of life in this state."

While the governor said he could make the case to voters that the higher taxes are needed, one Cincinnati-area motorist was unconvinced and unhappy to hear he might be paying more.

"Even though they squandered the (budget) surpluses we had several years ago, it ends up with the little guy like it always does," said Rollie Leach, 73, a retired sales manager from Mount Lookout. "They should be dealing with this thing at the top, not at the street level."

The Republican governor's legislative leaders, House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, and Senate President Doug White, R-Manchester, were noticeably absent Friday. The governor needs the backing of both men to pass his transportation plan.

Mr. White said now is not the time to consider a gas tax increase.

"It's just not on our radar screen right now, because we're looking to fill the budget hole first," Mr. White said. "As we get the budget out of our hair, we can go considering that."

Dwight Crum, spokesman for Mr. Householder, didn't offer an immediate endorsement, either.

"We understand the needs and share the same concerns," Mr. Crum said. "The question, ultimately, is how to pay for it."

Mr. White said the governor needs to educate senators and Ohioans on the issue and show why a tax increase is necessary. Friday's announcement appeared to be the first lesson.

Gordon Proctor, director of the Ohio Department of Transportation, said the current mix of state and federal tax dollars can't keep up with growing traffic and increased wear and tear on roads.

Intrastate traffic, especially commercial trucking, is expected to grow 60 percent over the next 20 years, Mr. Proctor said. Increasing maintenance and operating costs will leave Ohio without any money to fund new construction by 2006.

"We're experiencing 21st-century traffic on 20th-century roadways," Mr. Proctor said.

When fully funded, the tax plan would bring in an extra $577 million a year, which would be split among state and local construction projects.

The money would come from raising the state's 22-cents-a gallon tax for gasoline to 28 cents by July 1, 2005. Renewal fees for drivers' licenses would increase from $11.75 to $16.75.

State license plate fees would increase from $23.25 to $28.25.

Local governments can also charge an additional tax on license plates up to $20.

Car title registrations also would go from $5 to $20.

These fees would eventually completely fund the Ohio State Highway Patrol, freeing up about $175 million in gas taxes for more roadwork.

Of the $577 million, $289 million would be split among cities, counties and townships for local construction projects.

That decision appeared to win the support of several local government groups and construction interests.

"This has been a dream we've had for five or six years," said Bill Shaw, spokesman for the County Engineers Association of Ohio.

David Finley, managing director of the Ohio Construction Information Association, said the increased spending would create about 6,900 new jobs.

Of the jobs created, only 25 percent would be directly construction-related, Mr. Finley said. The others would be in the manufacturing and distribution sectors of the economy.

Groups that represent gas stations, refineries, truck stops and convenience stores say they won't stand in the way, either.

"We're not going to be out at the barricades supporting it, but we're going to advise our members that we think it's a good program," said Roger Dreyer, president of the Ohio Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association.

Terry Fleming, executive director of the Ohio Petroleum Association, which represents BP, Shell, Marathon/Ashland Petroleum and the Speedway chain of convenience stores, put it this way: "We're certainly not supporting a tax on our own product, but we are not opposing it either."

Mr. Dreyer was worried the gas tax increases might hurt Cincinnati-area retailers. He says motorists may buy cheaper gas in Kentucky, which charges 16.4 cents tax on a gallon of gasoline.

If the 6-cent increase were imposed now, the average price for a gallon of regular unleaded in Southwest Ohio would jump from just over $1.42 to $1.48, according to the AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report.

That would still keep the price below that of Northern Kentucky's traditionally higher gas prices.

The AAA Web site reported unleaded regular was selling for an average of $1.51 in Northern Kentucky on Friday.

Mr. Taft also promised to push for a greater share of federal roadway dollars, saying Ohio deserves more than it gets from Washington.

Ohio Department of Transportation statistics show the state gets back 87 cents for every $1 Ohioans pay in federal taxes.

On top of the 22-cent state tax, Ohio residents also pay 18.4 cents per gallon in federal excise taxes.

Other nearby states get more federal dollars back than they send in. Pennsylvania gets back $1.17 for every dollar sent in and New York gets $1.19.

Enquirer reporter James Pilcher contributed to this report.

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