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World & Nation

High pump prices? Yes, but let’s hike the gas tax, senator urges

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), a soft-spoken accountant with a low profile on Capitol Hill, is championing a high-octane cause: increasing the federal gasoline tax at a time of high fuel prices.

Conceding it’s “not a very popular” idea, he says the 18.4-cent-per-gallon tax -- last raised in 1993 -- should be indexed to inflation to ensure funding for road improvements without putting Uncle Sam further in the red.

“This isn’t something easy to do,” he told colleagues. “It’s something that we have to consider." 

A gas tax increase faces strong bipartisan resistance.

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“There aren’t going to be any rallies outside our offices, with this kind of economy, saying, ‘Please raise the gas tax,’ ” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said at a recent meeting where Enzi raised the idea.

Enzi showed up with charts on the Senate floor during this week’s debate on a two-year $109-billion transportation bill to highlight the fiscal problem.

“I am an accountant, so I get excited over numbers,’’ he said.

The gas tax isn’t bringing in as much money as it used to because of increased use of more fuel-efficient cars. Since 2008, the highway trust fund has received $35 billion in bailouts from the U.S. Treasury.

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Enzi’s efforts come as the U.S. Department of Transportation, in a report Friday, pointed to “a sizable gap between current spending and projected levels of investment needed to maintain the nation’s highway and transit systems.’’

“Several of my colleagues have said to me: This just is not the time to be talking about the gas tax,’’ he said. “When will the time be right?” The bill passed 74-22, with a number of conservative senators assailing as gimmicks the $10 billion in revenue it included to make up for the shortfall in funding for highway and transit projects. Enzi was among the no votes.

“We are pennies away from insolvency of the highway trust fund,” he added, calling inflationary increases in the gas tax a “small step to get us moving toward living within our means and maintaining our roads with the money we have, not the money we wish we had.”

Enzi argued that motorists would be unlikely to notice the tax increase, saying that if the tax had been indexed to inflation a year ago, it would have amounted to a half-penny per gallon increase at the pump. 

“The amount of increase that we’re talking about is less than the daily fluctuation at the gas pump,’’ he said.  

The government doesn’t take in any more money when gas prices go up because the tax is tied to every gallon sold, not every dollar spent.

“Folks might think that as the price of fuel goes up, so does the federal gas tax, and that is just not true,” Enzi said. “Whether the price of gas is $1 per gallon or $4 per gallon, the federal tax remains the same.”

Other ideas to help shore up the highway trust fund are controversial, too.

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House Republicans have pushed for using the money paid to the government from expanded on- and off-shore oil drilling to fund road projects.

But some conservatives say that runs counter to the user-pays principle of funding highways from taxes paid by those who use the roads.

“I believe most everyone in this chamber knows this is the right thing,’’ Enzi said,  adding: “The reason congressional approval is at a record low is because so many of us live in fear of taking the votes that will fix the problems.’’   

His proposal was never put to a vote.

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richard.simon@latimes.com


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