HB 69, Wyoming’s fuel tax hike bill, was passed in the senate as expected — but not without pushback from some concerned senators.
Many expected the bill to blow through the senate on first reading, but Senator Charles Scott (R-Natrona), called it off easy street, rising to explain that he felt compelled to vote against a fuel tax increase out of respect for the desires of his constituents.
He noted that HB69 was heavily lobbied by commercial interests, including the trucking association and the construction lobby, and that as a consequence senators had likely already decided how they were going to vote. He explained, however, that as he travelled around his district during his recent campaign, he asked voters whether they would support a 10 cents per gallon fuel tax increase to pay for streets and highways. By a two-to-one margin, they told him no, giving three main reasons:
- With the elimination of the payroll tax break, salary earners are already paying more tax, and with the economic situation, they said they couldn’t afford to pay more.
- Many constituents believe that the state already has enough money, and if legislators truly believe a fuel tax is a user fee for roads, then those causing most of the damage to the roads should pay their fair share. Legislators shouldn’t raise taxes on people before they raise taxes on the those creating the need for more road repairs.
- There are too many visible Department of Transportation (WyDOT) projects that don’t make any sense to people. Senator Scott gave a Casper example, where there was a sidewalk built to an overpass, but no way to get over the overpass. He also referred to a “make work project” close to the Holiday Inn in Cheyenne, where WyDOT tore up a “perfectly good sidewalk” to make it ADA (a federal regulation) compliant.
Senator Curt Meier (R-Goshen) also rose to object. He made the point that those promoting the fuel tax hike say it will only cost folks $114 dollars extra in taxes per year, yet promoters neglected to mention, let alone include, that the increase in fuel tax will be paid by families on all the goods transported by truck; every piece of food, furniture and clothing. Senator Meier said he thought that figure “is double.” He added that it is “insane” to tax people more during a recession.
Senator Meier described a project in his district where WyDOT completed five miles of a six-mile project this summer, then stopped. He wondered out loud whether they left the last mile out so “everybody, their neighbor, their cat and their dog would call me and say how come you didn’t you finish that last mile, it just seemed ridiculous. It seemed it was done on purpose so I would get these phone calls saying we needed the money!”
After reminding senators that, “We’re spending another $1.3 million dollars on grooming snowmobile trails,” he reinforced Senator Scott’s point that the fuel tax isn’t a user tax when cars subsidize the trucking industry.
Senator Meier said that although the tax train had already left the station, senators should refuse to move against the wishes of their constituents, and they should stop the train at the next station, let is sit for a while to “determine where we are actually making mistakes in our construction industry. “It’s the wrong bill at the wrong time,” he concluded.
Finally, Senator Larry Hicks (R-Albany) reminded senators that it is possible to find efficiencies in WyDOT.
He spoke about the WyDOT audit on $54-58 million worth of projects. It showed potential cuts of $8 million. WyDOT got together with its federal partners and said it could do $3 million in cuts. But WyDOT has a $1.1 billion plus budget. Six percent of that is $60 million in efficiencies. “If we can audit and find 6 percent on a few construction projects, you cannot convince me that there are not some efficiencies that can’t be built in.” If extrapolated, the agency should be able to find $60 million, not just $3 million in efficiencies.
In support of the fuel tax hike, Senator Nicholas reiterated the stories that the cabal of special interest groups have been hammering into legislator over the past year regarding the need for a higher fuel tax. He also reminded his fellow senators about HB 79, a bill that is designed bring greater scrutiny to the WyDot budget.
The fuel tax bill passed 35 to 24 in the House, and 18 to 12 in the Senate, and will hit driver’s pockets on July 1, 2013.