Grassroots Gas Tax Efforts

Washington, Oklahoma pols, taxpayers sink teeth into bridgework debates

SEATTLE -- Washington Governor Christine Gregoire and key state lawmakers have been working out a strategy to counter a citizen initiative that threatens to repeal a 9.5-cent-per-gallon increase in the state gasoline tax approved in April, reported The Olympian.

Initiative 912 gathered more than 400,000 voter signatures in just more than one month to qualify for the November ballot. It would repeal the four-step gasoline-tax increase that increased the state tariff by 3 cents to 31 cents per gallon last month, the report said.

Opponents, led by conservative talk-show hosts and anti-tax activists, said the money will not solve congestion problems or finish high-profile projects such as replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

But Gregoire and lawmakers say they hope to counter the campaignand even beat back the tax insurrection. State Senator Dan Swecker (R), who helped craft the tax plan with majority Democrats, said recent polling shows opposition is less than 60%, which means the measure can be beat. "If we can educate folks, we can chip away at it," he said.

"I wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page," Gregoire said late Friday, referring to meetings with Swecker and the other transportation leaders from both parties in the House and Senate. They met during the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the report.

Gregoire, whose role in negotiations broke a political stalemate on the legislature's final day of session in April, said she is looking to play another key role soon that would include dialing for dollars in support of the campaign.

The tax package raises $8.5 billion over 16 years, including weight fees on vehicles that would not be repealed by the initiative. The biggest chunks of money go to Seattle-area projects such as fixing the earthquake- damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct, but Swecker has noted often that projects statewide get money.

Keep Washington Rolling, a coalition of business, labor and environmental groups, has organized to oppose I-912. But its name could be changed, according to Gregoire, as well as its message. Meetings are planned to chart the campaign's direction, Gregoire said.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma's air waves will soon crackle with the pitch of a political campaign as supporters and opponents of a proposed increase in fuel taxes launch rival advertising blitzes they hope will sway voters to their opposing viewpoints, said a separate report by the Associated Press.

Supporters, including Oklahomans for Safe Roads & Bridges, a coalition of citizen and business groups, have raised more than $1 million to promote a plan to raise Oklahoma's 17 cent-per-gallon gasoline tax and 14 cent-per-gallon diesel tax to 22 cents each to fund road and bridge repairs.

"The primary focus is on safety," said Neal McCaleb, president of the coalition and former state transportation secretary. The Road Information Program, a national transportation research group, ranks the state's bridges as the worst in the nation because 33% are structurally deficient. "I don't think that's a hard sell," he said.

A coalition of opponents including the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, the Oklahoma Trucking Association and Taxpayers United, an anti-tax group, will fight the measure with ads that claim a fuel price hike is unnecessary and will damage the state's economy. "We don't disagree that roads and bridges in Oklahoma are bad," said State Representative Thad Balkman (R), spokesperson for Taxpayers United. But the problems can be fixed with existing state and federal tax dollars, he said.

The legislature this year passed a plan to eventually increase road and bridge maintenance funding by $170 million a year without raising taxes. A federal transportation bill that is awaiting President Bush's signature increases federal funding for state needs by more than $130 million a year over four years. "We don't need a tax increase to address these problems. We've already got other ways to accomplish what they're trying to accomplish," Balkman said.

Both sides began airing TV and radio ads Mondaythree weeks before a statewide September 13 election on State Question 723. If passed, the fuel tax increase will raise an estimated $150 million a year when it is fully in effect in four years.

As the election draws near, opposition groups are buoyed by the skyrocketing cost of gasoline and diesel fuel they say is the biggest asset in their attempts to defeat the tax. "The best proponent we've got is the price of fuel," said Dan Case, executive director of the trucking group that has raised more than $100,000 to defeat SQ 723. "It's getting too high even for the people who support this."

At the same time, headlines and photographs in newspapers across the state are highlighting the dangers of Oklahoma's crumbling highways and bridges. Last week, concrete fell from an I-244 bridge in Tulsa, creating a large hole in the roadway. Last year, a woman was killed when falling concrete from an I-35 bridge near Oklahoma City smashed through her windshield. In April, part of a bridge over the Salt Fork of the Red River in Jackson County collapsed under the weight of a garbage truck. No one was injured.

"The opposition has characterized us as Chicken Littles, running around saying the bridges are falling. In fact they are," McCaleb said.

Much of the money donated to the fuel tax campaign as come from contractors, trade associations and other groups involved in road and bridge building, according to state campaign finance records.

Case said the group's ads are an attempt to frighten voters into supporting the tax. "They're very detrimental to our industry," he said.

Opponents will counter with ads that highlight the cost of a fuel tax increase to farmers, truckers and rural residents, who must drive further distances to receive basic services. "The proposed fuel tax increase is a consumption tax that hits rural Oklahomans directly in their wallets," states one radio ad sponsored by the Farm Bureau. "No, we don't need to further burden our citizens with increased fuel taxes."

Jeremy Rich, director of public policy for the Farm Bureau, said rural Oklahomans are struggling to pay their fuel bills. "To tax that item right now just doesn't make any sense," he said.

Case said Oklahoma truckers already pay 38.4 cents a gallon of diesel fuel in federal and state taxes. Nationally, truckers account for 10% of the traffic, but pay 40% of the fuel taxes, he said. "We just feel like we want to do it without new taxes," said Case.

McCaleb said the cost of a fuel tax increase will be minuscule for average Oklahomans, amounting to $2.50 more a month for a driver who travels an average of 12,000 miles a year.

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