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State Lawmakers Call For Governor To Freeze Gas Tax

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A nearly 3-cent-a-gallon increase in the state gasoline tax appears headed to take effect as scheduled Sunday, but lawmakers may still try to return to Raleigh without the blessing of Gov. Mike Easley to consider breaks on energy taxes.

Several House Democrats asked Easley late last week to call the General Assembly back into special session so they could try to persuade their colleagues to freeze the gasoline tax for six months. They also want some temporary tax exemptions or cuts on natural gas and other home heating fuels, some of which, like gasoline, have soared in price since the late summer.

"I don't think we need to hurt our road system. I don't think we need to hurt the future growth of our state. But if we can give some people relief in this desperate time, then we ought to do so," said Rep. Bill Faison, D-Caswell.

The gasoline tax is set to rise by 2.8 cents per gallon Jan. 1 to 29.9 cents. The tax is recalculated twice annually based on the average wholesale cost of fuel.

Easley opposes a freeze in the tax, saying it would provide little benefit for consumers while expanding a shortfall for overdue transportation projects. Each penny of the gas tax generates about $53 million annually, according to the Department of Revenue.

Easley wrote to legislators Wednesday telling them that he has already set aside $10 million through a partnership with utilities to help pay the heating bills this winter of about 70,000 low-income families and make their homes more energy efficient.

He called it the best use of scarce resources given that the federal government has failed to provide enough money this year to help with energy bills.

"I believe that our values require that we help the neediest rather than provide across-the-board assistance that fails to target those hurting the most," he wrote.

Rep. Bruce Goforth, D-Buncombe, one of the proponents for cutting the gas tax, said despite Easley's opposition, he's working on getting a special session called through another method in the state constitution: written requests from at least three-fifths of the members each in the House and Senate. Seventy-two signatures are needed in the House and 30 in the Senate.

"We need some assistance for all families, not just low-income families," Goforth said.

Twenty to 25 House Democrats have written or will write letters asking Speaker Jim Black to call the session, Goforth said. Republicans have been asking for energy tax relief since this fall, so many of the 57 GOP members should be on board, he said.

"I really feel like that in the House we can come up with the three-fifths," Goforth said.

Reaching that level could be more difficult in the Senate, where Democrats control 29 of the 50 seats and Senate leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare, doesn't support a gas tax freeze, according to a spokesman who cited transportation needs.

Black, D-Mecklenburg, spoke briefly with Easley and legislators Wednesday about other ways to provide energy tax relief, spokeswoman Julie Robinson said.

Easley could veto any bills approved by the Legislature in a special session, raising the question of whether it's worthwhile for lawmakers to return to Raleigh. But legislators preparing for May primaries may benefit politically from passing bills that support lower taxes.

"It's just a lot more complicated than people think," Rep. Bill Culpepper, D-Chowan, one of Black's top lieutenants, said after meeting with Black at the Legislative Building. "No decision has been made."

Easley told the lawmakers more heating bill assistance is possible as the winter progresses and needs remain. Goforth said if North Carolina gas prices, already among the highest in the Southeast, increase much more, low-income workers will find it difficult to drive to work.

"People in the rural areas are getting hurt the worst," Goforth said. "There's no sense in having good roads if you can't drive on them."


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