Gas tax vote probable this year — Inhofe aide 

Source: Sean Reilly, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Members of Congress could have to take a politically prickly stand on a federal gas tax increase this year, a top aide to Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) predicted today.

“At some point this year, there’s probably going to be a vote on the gas tax,” Alex Herrgott, the committee’s deputy staff director, said in response to a question during a transportation panel discussion this morning hosted by Squire Patton Boggs LLP. “People are going to have to show their cards.”

In an interview afterward, Herrgott foresaw no chance that a proposed increase would pass, adding that Inhofe does not support a hike. In a statement, an Inhofe spokeswoman said the senator “is focused on putting together a fiscally responsible, long-term solution that supports the states’ infrastructure priorities and is viable in the new [Republican] majority.”

Barely a week into the start of the 114th Congress, however, the issue is already opening up divisions within the GOP as lawmakers begin to grapple with the need to pay for road and transit programs past the end of May, when an extension approved last summer expires. The EPW panel, which is responsible for drafting the highway portion of the bill, will kick off its work with a Jan. 28 hearing, Herrgott said, with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx among the witnesses.

Organizations including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Laborers’ International Union of North America have endorsed a boost in the gas levy, which has stood at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993.

“That may be where we’re going to have to go,” Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said last week. “I’ve got an open mind on it.”

But at a GOP retreat yesterday, House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was dismissive.

“We won’t pass a gas tax increase,” he told reporters. While House members “would like to have a long-term highway bill,” he said, “we have to see how we would pay for it.”

Earlier in the week, The Wall Street Journal, an influential voice in conservative circles, editorialized that the federal tax should be abolished, with states taking up the slack if they so chose. Rather than considering an increase, Republicans “should be talking about downsizing the federal gas tax instead, with a target of zero,” the editorial said.

With federal fuel tax receipts running consistently short of road and transit spending demands, lawmakers will have to either accept cuts in federal reimbursement to states or find another revenue source to make up the difference. The current extension relies heavily on a budget gimmick known as “pension smoothing” to help close the gap, but it is unclear how much more Congress can squeeze out of that technique.

While not rejecting an increase in the tax out of hand, Obama administration officials have made clear that they prefer an approach that would use corporate tax code changes to generate tens of billions of dollars in added revenue for the next few years. Last year, however, the White House never went beyond an outline of its proposals.

This year, the administration is having an “active discussion” on how specific to be, Foxx said at today’s forum.

If lawmakers are forced into floor votes on a tax increase, it’s anyone’s guess how that would occur. Herrgott suggested that a push could come via an amendment from Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who has previously proposed raising the tax by 12 cents over three years and indexing it to inflation thereafter.

In a statement to E&ENews PM, Carper said he still believes that an increase is the best way to help ensure a reliable source of transportation money.

“To that end, I’ll be looking for opportunities to enact a common sense way to fund a long-term transportation bill,” he said.

While Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) have proposed raising the tax by 12 cents over two years, neither has so far introduced legislation to that end. In an interview earlier this week, Corker said the time is not yet “ripe” for a bill but that the two are continuing to talk to other lawmakers.