An attempt by House Republicans to cap the state’s gas tax hit a speed bump tonight. The Senate plans to leave just after midnight without taking up the proposal.
The tax is scheduled to rise by nearly 4 cents per gallon in January. The House proposal would cap it at its current level till July 1, 2012.
The resulting loss of revenue to the DOT would be $95 million.
On the House floor, critics of the cap said it would cost jobs, both in the DOT and among private contractors who build the road projects that money would fund. One estimate put the number of contractor jobs alone at 2800.
But supporters argued that allowing the tax to rise would cost jobs, too, as businesses struggle to stay in the black despite the recession. “This is jobs on either side,” said Rep, Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg.
Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, said many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle knew the cap would be a bad policy decision, but they voted for it anyway, foreseeing campaign attack ads in 2012. “If we had a secret ballot right now, there’d be about 100 of you voting with me. And you know it’s true,” Owens said.
House Minority Leader Joe Hackney agreed, though he stopped short of asking Democrats to oppose the cap. “We know a political exercise when we see one, and I think that’s what this is,” he remarked dryly.
The bill is scheduled for a third reading Tuesday.
Senate: “No further business”
That third reading may be a moot point, since the Senate decided tonight to adjourn just after midnight Tuesday – before the gas tax cap even gets to their chamber.
“We’re doing no further business other than adjourning,” Senate Leader Phil Berger confirmed Monday night.
Berger and other Senate Republicans have been much less enthusiastic than their House counterparts about the cap proposal. But leaving town before they even get the bill is a pretty strong statement of disapproval.
Berger explained Senate leaders' thinking to reporters.
“Taking up the gas tax at this time - in essence what you do is, you’re going into the budget and you’re arbitrarily cutting a number of projects that are out there. So you’re talking about cutting jobs, you’re talking about reducing funds that will be available to do things, and you’re deferring to the executive branch to make a decision as to which ones,” Berger said.
“Now is not the time for us to be dealing with that issue. The short session, when we can look at it in a comprehensive fashion, and we can actually cut the gas tax – not just cap it, but we should be able to cut the gas tax - without adversely impacting the projects that are already in the pipeline.”
“The House has had since January to deal with this issue,” Berger continued. “They’ve not dealt with it. They come up with this on a day like – on this day, at a time when we are slated to leave tomorrow. They don’t have it over to us.”
“We just don’t feel this is an appropriate time to deal with this, to reopen the budget,” Berger concluded. “We’ll deal with it, and we’ll deal with it in an appropriate fashion, during the short session.”
The General Assembly is not scheduled to meet again until February, at which the time the gas tax increase would have already taken effect. However, they could come back into town next month if the Governor calls them back to respond to a veto or for a special session on the Indian gaming proposal lawmakers didn’t get to this week.