Wednesday, May 09, 2007

House rejects gas index tax, wants to cut gas tax instead. Krusee continues to push for private toll roads.

House favors gas tax break

Legislature: Prices would drop 20 cents for 3 months; Senate may not be receptive

May 9, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
The Dallas Morning News

Gas prices are climbing, but the Texas House wants to make your summer road trip a little cheaper.

House members gave a preliminary blessing Tuesday to a three-month break from the 20-cent-per-gallon state gas tax, aiming to ease the pain during the summer driving season.

Gas prices have been creeping higher for 13 straight weeks, according to AAA Texas surveys. Last week, prices for regular-grade gasoline rose to $2.87 a gallon in Texas, with Dallas drivers paying a penny more per gallon.

Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, tacked the surprise measure onto a Senate gas tax collection bill Tuesday. He said a couple driving a pickup and a car could save more than $100 over the three months.

"It's real relief," Mr. Martinez Fischer said. "It makes a difference, I believe, in whether or not families will spend that weekend going to the coast or Fiesta Texas or Six Flags."

He estimated that the three-month gas tax holiday would cost between $500 million and $700 million, to be covered by money left over in the state's general fund. House members resoundingly approved the measure, 118-16.

But the measure faces obstacles, including an uncertain reception in the Senate. Plus, budget-writers are closing in on a final version of the state's two-year budget, and finding the money to cover such a big price tag could be tricky with just three weeks left in the legislative session.

Once the House gives final approval this week, the bill would return to the Senate. The measure requires two-thirds approval from both chambers and the governor's signature to take immediate effect.

Aides to the bill's author, Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said Tuesday that the senator was unfamiliar with the gas tax relief measure but would review it.

"We're set to take a look at it when it comes back to us," said Jason Baxter, Mr. Williams' legislative director.

Rise rejected

The bill would make it a Class B misdemeanor for gasoline dealers to fail to pass on the tax savings, and the attorney general would be empowered to investigate any complaints along those lines and seek charges.

Just before approving Mr. Martinez Fischer's measure, House members left little doubt where they stand on fuel taxes, overwhelmingly rejecting a measure that would have allowed the gas tax to rise according to an index that mirrors the inflation rate.

Rep. Mike Krusee, the House's Transportation Committee chairman, pointed out that the gas tax has been stuck at 20 cents a gallon since 1991. He argued that with the Legislature poised to approve a two-year ban on private toll-road agreements, Texas needs to find other ways to pay for roads to accommodate the state's rapid growth.

"There aren't many tools left," said Mr. Krusee, R-Round Rock. "This is about all there is. This is our traditional method of financing roads."

But House members were in no mood to raise the gas tax, even if only to keep up with inflation. They rebuffed Mr. Krusee's measure, 122-19.

"We're already at three bucks and going north," said Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland. "I just don't feel it's a time to go forward with this."

As for Mr. Martinez Fischer's proposal for a gas tax holiday, the state is expected to ring up a $14.3 billion surplus through September 2009.

Budget time

GOP leaders generally have resisted appeals to spend the money on items such as reducing college tuition and hiring more workers to manage foster care. Both chambers have passed two-year budgets that would spend several billion to undo accounting tricks used to balance the budget last session and to make up for a shortfall in last year's tax-swap bill.

And both chambers have left more than $8 billion unspent. But Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick say they want to put the money aside to pay for the future costs of school property tax cuts and position the state to weather an economic downturn or handle emergencies.

Mr. Martinez Fischer said the cost was worth it.

"In a 20-gallon tank of gas, that's $4. That's at least a gallon and change in free gas," he said. "This is a really tough time for folks."

Staff writer Robert T. Garrett in Austin contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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