12/29/05 — Lawmakers seek special session to cut gas tax

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Lawmakers seek special session to cut gas tax

By Staff and Wire
Published in News on December 29, 2005 1:52 PM

RALEIGH -- 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.

Easley can call the Legislature into session himself. If he doesn't, lawmakers can force a session if three-fifths of the membership of both the House and Senate vote for it. Seventy-two signatures are needed in the House and 30 in the Senate.

The chances of the House approving such a measure are much better than in the Senate, where powerful Sen. Marc Basnight has indicated his opposition to a special session.

State Rep. Stephen LaRoque, who represents part of Wayne County, wrote Easley this week, asking that the governor call the Legislature into special session.

LaRoque, a Republican, said the state needs to help consumers by holding off on raising the gas tax.

"We need to give the people of this state a break," LaRoque said.

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.

LaRoque called Easley's argument insincere. If the governor was so concerned over highway funding he would not raided the Highway Trust Fund to prop up the state's General Fund, he said.

Rep. Louis Pate, a Republican, also represents part of Wayne. Pate said he would like to see a special session called, given the current high cost of gasoline.

"I think it's difficult, especially on people on fixed incomes and small business operators who depend a lot on trucking fleets and that sort of thing to distribute their goods to retailers. It's certainly going to have an impact on all of us," Pate said.

"Three cents is not as much as I had feared, but certainly tough to take on top of gasoline that's already averaging about about $2.15 a gallon. I'd like to see us go ahead and roll it back," Pate said.

Pate said he would be curious to see if Easley would veto a freeze on the tax increase if lawmakers approved one.

"That'd be very interesting, to see whether or not he'd veto it. I think it's worth the effort, but then we'd see whose side he's on," Pate said.

State Sen. John Kerr of Wayne County said he would prefer the issue be discussed in regular session, rather than be hurried into a decision. Kerr said he believes the issue needs open debate.

"If they call, I'll be there," Kerr said today. "But I think there are a lot of angles to it. Let's hear from everybody, what the people say, what the truckers say, and let's make a decision."

Kerr noted that the money raised by the tax increase would go to help finish highway projects, including those in Wayne.

"I have to pay it, I pay as much as anybody, but also we want roads," Kerr said. "We want to decide our priorities. Goldsboro and Wayne County are getting ready to move. Great things are going to happen pretty quickly in the way of job opportunities."

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

House Speaker Jim Black, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, spoke briefly with Easley and legislators Wednesday about other ways to provide energy tax relief, spokesman 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. Rep. Bruce Goforth, a Buncombe County Democrat, 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."