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March 26. 2013 6:48PM

Gas tax games: A huge hike still

In politics, sometimes an idea that would have broad public support loses much of its appeal when overzealous supporters carry it too far. That could be said of the gas tax hike up for a vote in the House today.

Earlier this month the House approved House Bill 619, which would raise the state's 18-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax by 15 cents, or 83 percent. House Republicans pointed out that it was a $1 billion tax increase. They also noted that the state diverts close to one-third of gas-tax revenue out of the highway fund and to other departments, mostly the Department of Safety for partial funding of the State Police.

Per House rules, the bill had to go back to the Ways and Means Committee for further review. There, the increase was trimmed to 12 cents, and all of it was dedicated to highway maintenance, repair and construction. That version of the bill is up for discussion today.

The Ways and Means Committee vote was split by party, with all Democrats supporting the bill and all Republicans opposing it. We are likely to see a similar split in the full House; only 15 Republicans voted for the earlier version of the bill. In the majority-Republican Senate, the bill faces a cold reception.

This is not simply because Republicans don't like raising taxes. The idea that the state needs at least a little more revenue for road repair and maintenance is fairly widely acknowledged, at least in private. It is because the Democrats pushed such a huge tax hike all at once, knowing they could get it through the House because their majority was so large. (Republicans behaved similarly in the last session.)

There was an opportunity here to bring all sides together early on to find more highway revenue without a massive tax hike. (There is support in both parties for a small tax hike and for reducing the non-highway diversions from the highway fund.) But that is not how politics tends to work. Compromise and problem-solving come last, gamesmanship first. We might get the compromise eventually, but for now it's each side painting the other as extreme, with the debate dragged out for weeks for maximum political impact. How lovely.

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