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Gas Tax

The Gas Tax: A Trip Back in Legislative Time …

8:45 AM PDT on April 15, 2010

As Tax Day prompts a rush of political rallies and media coverage, it's worth looking back at the history of the federal levy that helps pay for transportation projects: the gas tax.

jesse_0704.jpgThe late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) in 1982, when he battled his own party's attempts to raise the gas tax. (Photo: TIME)

Americans who follow infrastructure can cite the year of the last
federal gas-tax increase (1993) off the top of their heads, but how did
the tax grow to its current, non-inflation-adjusted level of 18.3 cents
per gallon? A helpful table from the Tax Foundation tells the story.

two most recent gas-tax hikes came in 1993 (a 4.3-cent per gallon
increase) and 1990 (a nickel per gallon increase). Congress approved
both hikes using "reconciliation," the filibuster-proof legislative
tactic that became something of a household name this year when Democrats used it to pass their health care bill.

gas tax was also raised in 1982 by then-President Reagan, a fact cited
often by House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN)
and others who seek to puncture the current bipartisan resistance
to increasing fuel levies. Reagan had vowed just months before pursuing
the tax increase that gasoline fees would not rise "unless there's a
palace coup and I'm overtaken or overthrown," but it didn't take long
for him to change his mind, as the Tax Analysts newsletter reported:

Despitethe absence of a coup, Reagan acknowledged two weeks later that a gas"user fee" was under discussion. And two weeks after that he announcedhis plan to ask the lame-duckCongress to increase the gas tax and earmark the funds for highways,bridges, and mass transit.

Support in Congress was strong and bipartisan.

When the gas-tax increases passed during the Reagan, Clinton, and first
Bush administrations are compared with the current Congress' predicament, two interesting patterns emerge.

first: All three hikes approved in the past 30 years had to be steered
past Senate GOP filibusters or Democratic challenges. In 1993,
then-Vice President Al Gore had to cast the deciding Senate vote on
raising gas taxes. In 1990, as Tax Analysts notes,
Sens. Max Baucus (D-MT) -- now chairman of the influential Finance
Committee -- and Kent Conrad (D-ND) both took aim at the proposed tax
increase. And in 1982, then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) led a conservative rebellion against a gas-tax increase backed by Reagan as well as less anti-tax GOP leaders.

second: All three hikes were approved separately from the six-year
federal transportation legislation that sets national policy for roads,
bridges, transit, and bike-ped infrastructure. The situation faced by
lawmakers this year, in which a gas-tax increase is necessary to
generate sufficient financing for a long-term federal bill, is to a
certain degree unprecedented.

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