House debates gas tax plan

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(Host) The House is debating a plan to raise the gas tax by four cents a gallon. Backers say the proposal is needed to allow the state to take full advantage of a new federal transportation law.

Opponents of the plan, including Governor Jim Douglas, argue that cutting the state budget is a better way to make money available for the transportation fund.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) The fight over the gas tax has locked House Democrats and the Douglas Administration in a bitter debate. The state needs roughly $25 million in order to match more than $100 million in new federal money.

In January, Governor Jim Douglas proposed transferring $14 million from the state’s Education Fund to the Transportation Fund as a way to make state money available.

After more than 100 communities passed a resolution on Town Meeting Day opposing the governor’s plan, Douglas said he was searching for other alternatives.

Now, Administration Secretary Michael Smith says cutting next year’s state budget by 10 to $15 million is a better approach. But Smith didn’t offer any specific cuts.

(Smith) “Because we can target cuts, the gas tax is indiscriminate when it goes out there and hits everybody. I don’t want to get to where we would be cutting but out of a billion dollar budget in the General Fund there’s ways of doing as long as we do this cooperatively to move forward here.”

(Kinzel) House Democratic Whip Floyd Nease says the Administration has an obligation to specify which programs they want to cut so that House members can weigh those cuts against a gas tax increase:

(Nease) “I think the Administration took a really bad tack in trying to raid the Education Fund. And now they’re trying to figure out how to save face and relieve themselves of the burden that they produced for themselves.”

(Kinzel) On the House floor, Transportation chairman Richard Westman said he supports a gas tax increase because allocating additional money to local highway budgets will help keep municipal property tax rates down:

(Westman) “And you look at the state of our bridges and you look at the state of our paving as we go ahead if you think that by not supporting more revenue and more spending in transportation this year that it’s not needed after looking at these charts you’ve got your head in the sand.”

(Kinzel) The House is expected to give its final consideration to the legislation on Friday.

For Vermont Public Radio I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

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