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A reason to say no

Jan 27, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

The gasoline tax debate shapes up

As the proposed gasoline tax increase moves through the Wyoming Legislature, skeptical lawmakers are going to have lots of questions. So are the voters. The legislative session is still young, but the fuel tax bill is shaping up to be one of the major battles of the session, presenting lawmakers and voters with a competing set of powerful arguments and interests not often seen in legislation.

Gov. Matt Mead raised the issue late in 2012, then used his State of the State address to call for the 10-cent added tax on every gallon of gasoline and diesel sold in Wyoming. The added revenue would be spent to maintain and improve Wyoming's highways and, probably, to build some new ones.

No tax increase goes over easily in Wyoming, but this one has a chance because bad roads don't go over well here either. We drive long distances routinely, and we have become accustomed to the best. A tax with a specific revenue target usually has a better chance of approval, either on the ballot or in the Legislature.

Writers of the tax bill thought it through carefully, and it was wise to have created the proportioned allocation structure this bill has. Some would be under state control. Some would be under county control. And some would be given to cities and towns to use for road priorities close to home. The wealth of the tax would be shared.

A tax increase stands a chance only if those who must vote for it -- legislators, in this case -- determine that the funds are both needed and not readily available from another source. On the second point the gasoline tax has been challenged in different ways, and it probably is on this point that it must succeed or fail.

Could the state's enormous "rainy day" fund be tapped to pay for road upkeep? The state has socked enough cash in reserve accounts to pay for virtually anything imaginable, but to date lawmakers have shown unbending restraint in touching the money. They just won't do it. Trial balloons in that direction have not got off the ground so far.

Are there areas of redundancy, inefficiency, obsolescence and outright waste that could be identified and corrected to squeeze dollars into a bigger highway allocation? Some critics of the tax say yes, but such claims almost always lack two things --specificity and solvency. Where are the loopholes, and how much money do they represent? The tax, remember, is expected to generate $72 million annually. Every budget has waste, but Wyoming's doesn't have $72 million worth every year.

Might the tax be limited to out-of-state drivers, to truckers, to Interstate routes only? Could it be phased in gradually? All these questions have been asked, and more.

A final, and very important, consideration is that the fuel tax increase is a top priority of the governor's, which ensures that it will survive deep into the session.

That will give the bill's opponents plenty of time to come up with a reason not to pass it. Other than a generic abhorrence of taxes, they haven't found one that sticks.

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