Sunday, September 7, 2003

Gas tax boost faces rough road

Fee helps fix highways, but few want it

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COVINGTON - When Covington resident Don Wildeboer pulled into a gas station Thursday and filled up his 1988 Thunderbird, it cost him more than $30. Just a few weeks ago he paid just about $25. With a number of Kenton County gas stations getting $1.69 a gallon for unleaded gas Friday, Wildeboer was in no mood to hear an argument for raising Kentucky's gasoline tax to generate more money for road repair and construction.

"Don't even go there, don't even think about it," said Wildeboer, 40, a driver with a Cincinnati trucking firm. "It's already bad enough when you go to work in the morning and gas is one price and then it's 15 cents higher when you go home at night. The state has plenty of our tax money, they don't need any more."

Wild fluctuations in prices at the pump, an economy that continues to sag and a general backlash to higher taxes from consumers, voters and politicians makes any increase in the state's 16.4-cents-a-gallon tax on gas unlikely when lawmakers gather in Frankfort in January for the 2004 General Assembly in session.

"There's no sentiment for it, especially among Northern Kentuckians," said state Rep. Tom Kerr, D-Taylor Mill. "There are few legislators in favor of raising taxes because gas prices are high enough and our constituents keep telling us we need to live within our means down in Frankfort."

All the anti-tax talk won't stop the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the region's largest business group, from lobbying legislators to increase the gas tax.

"We've been for it, we are for it, we'll always be for it," said chamber Vice President Steve Stevens, the organization's Frankfort lobbyist and head of government affairs.

The chamber is unrepentant about seeking the increase, saying it is needed to improve roads. And improved roads lead to an improved economy and more jobs - the fuel that drives business.

"We have a long-term list of road needs (in Kentucky) that totals $50 billion, yet we only generate $474 million annually in gas tax to pay for it," Stevens said.

The chamber is preparing a "Where We Stand" position paper that will be distributed to legislators in early November. It will list the business group's legislative priorities, including the gas tax increase.

"Basically, because of what we believe to be a funding crisis in financing road and bridge infrastructure ... we believe the Legislature and administration has to look at other sources of revenue to help us catch up," Stevens said. "This is not exclusive to gas taxes that the chamber has already stated it supports. Our document is intended to be an effort to get policymakers to look hard at a whole range of possibilities, and it will call on them to make some tough decisions about finding more revenue."

The chamber is also on record backing the legalization of casino gaming as a generator of additional money in a state facing a $400 million budget deficit.

But at least casino gaming appears to have some support in Frankfort, even to varying degrees in the state's gubernatorial election this fall.

Democrat Ben Chandler supports gaming and said the issue should be put on the statewide ballot for voters to decide. Republican Ernie Fletcher has said he is not for gaming "at this time" but that if elected he would not stand in the way of the issue going to the ballot for the voters to decide.

But neither candidate will embrace the gas tax increase, knocking it down each time a reporter or voter brings it. That despite promises to improve Northern Kentucky roads both made during a campaign forum in Erlanger last week.

State Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said it's "highly unlikely" a gas tax will ever pass the GOP-controlled state Senate.

"The road fund is an issue the governor is going to have to deal with," said Thayer, who represents southern Kenton County. "But we're not going to do it by raising the gas tax when gas is going for a $1.50 or $1.60 a gallon."

Yet the state's road fund desperately needs a cash infusion. In June the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet said dozens of road projects across the state would be delayed due to a lack of money.

The state's road fund is a $1 billion yearly account that primarily pays for highway construction and maintenance. About 40 percent of the fund comes from Kentucky's gas tax revenues, with about the same amount generated by the state's 6 percent sales tax on motor vehicles.

The gas tax is 16.4 cents a gallon; 15 cents goes for road construction with the remainder used to clean underground petroleum storage tanks.

In 2000, Gov. Paul Patton tried to convince lawmakers to increase the tax, but lawmakers rebuffed those efforts while at the same time mandating the Transportation Cabinet to build new roads across the state.

Since 1997, 11 states have raised gas taxes, including Ohio, which increased 6 cents to 28 cents a gallon this summer, and Indiana, where lawmakers approved a 3-cent increase to 18 cents a gallon in 2002.

Both states will use the money to build and improve roads.

The Louisville Courier-Journal contributed.


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