Temporary Gas-Tax Rollback Proposed

Temporary Gas-Tax Rollback Proposed »Play Video
OLYMPIA - House Republicans on Wednesday proposed a three-month repeal of the state's 31-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax, but within hours, the Democratic governor and key Democratic lawmakers killed the plan.

Aides to Gov. Christine Gregoire said she had been discussing the topic with lawmakers in recent days. But shortly after House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, floated the plan, the governor rejected it. The plan called for replacing the $270 million lost by cutting the tax with money from the state's budget reserves.

The Democrats said they would not be offering an alternative relief package.

"This proposal has not been thought through," Gregoire said. "It would strap our ability to cover basic needs in education, health care and other vital services to people in Washington."

Washington is one of several states where lawmakers have considered easing the burden on consumers as pump prices hit $3 per gallon in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But Gregoire noted that even Republican icon Tom DeLay, R-Texas, has signaled that Congress won't roll back federal gas taxes to offset higher prices.

"The oil companies should be a primary target in looking for a solution to the high price of gas, not the citizens," Gregoire said. "Why should people in Washington state suffer fewer services so oil barons can continue to amass huge profits?

"I do not support the proposal. Others in the Legislature who understand transportation and funding of state services are in agreement."

House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said that if anything, lawmakers should impose a "profiteering" surtax on the oil industry. Gas prices have been rising so quickly that consumers might not even notice a tax cut, she said.

"Nobody would notice a thing and yet our coffers would be wiped out," she said.

Senate Transportation Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, said lawmakers have to be responsible as they consider hurricane relief.

"And we won't jeopardize other state responsibilities, such as education," she said.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, also weighed in against it. Democrats control the House and Senate; the comments from the party's leaders quickly sunk the plan.

DeBolt said his caucus is squarely behind the plan to erase the tax for three months. That would offset the price increases that came after Katrina disrupted the nation's refinery supply, he said. The tax relief would keep the state economy from slumping, he said.

Analysts predict prices will start dropping by November, DeBolt said.

"We want to be proactive," he said in an interview. "It's to our competitive advantage to keep our economy moving, to keep our freight moving, to keep our small businesses going in these tough times."

DeBolt was on a bicycle trip and could not immediately be reached for comment on the quick demise of the plan.

Senate Republican Leader Bill Finkbeiner, of Kirkland, said gasoline prices are hurting businesses and consumers, and that "it's worth the Legislature considering some ideas" for relief. He didn't specifically endorse a tax rollback, saying lawmakers would have to carefully weigh the issue, particularly the impact on the state budget reserve.

Voters face Initiative 912 this fall, a plan that would erase the 3-cent gas tax increase that took effect July 1. The plan also would rescind scheduled increases over the next three years. The July 1 increase was part of a four-year plan to increase the gas tax by 9 cents, which would raise about $4 billion over 16 years.

A survey by The Associated Press this week showed that a number of states are considering ways to ease the runaway gas prices. Some states have been reluctant to act, worrying about their budgets.

The federal government said this week that the retail price of regular unleaded gasoline has risen by nearly 46 cents, to a record $3.069, in the wake of the hurricane. That's $1.21 per gallon more than the average price just one year ago.