Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon and a staunch transit booster, introduced a bill on Wednesday to raise the gas tax by more than 80 percent, from 18.4 to 33.4 cents per gallon. Such a drastic increase likely won’t happen for the same reasons that the fuel surcharge hasn’t been raised since Bill Clinton’s first year in office. Still, another development in Congress gives this proposal a bit more credibility than past attempts: Negotiations to ease the sequester.
Politico reported yesterday that Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), lead budget negotiators, are “only a few billion dollars in budgetary savings” apart on a deal they want to reach by next Friday to “set spending levels and blunt the impact of across-the-board spending cuts for the next two years.”
A glimmer of hope that this deal will include a gas tax hike comes from the fact that Republicans appear eager to raise user fees, not taxes — a subtle distinction that voters and conservative groups don’t often get, but which definitely works in favor of the gas tax. (Despite the word “tax” in “gas tax,” it’s actually a more accurate description of the fuel levy, which mostly goes toward roads, though with a significant portion also diverted to pay for transit.)
There will be new revenue flowing into government coffers in any budget agreement, but not by the way of additional taxes, which Boehner, Ryan and other Republican leaders have adamantly ruled out.
Instead, Ryan and Murray are looking toward increased fees on airline tickets and other cost increases passed along as “user fees” for government services.
House GOP leaders are already beginning to talk to other key Republican figures about selling revenue increases. Rep. Dave Camp, the Michigan Republican who chairs the Ways and bq. Means Committee, told a group of senior Republicans Thursday that he has spoken with Club for Growth president Chris Chocola about revenue raisers. And other critical figures are expressing openness to allowing more governmental revenue.
Meanwhile, Blumenauer told NBC News that he’s talked to Ryan and Murray about including a gas tax hike in the deal, stressing the user fee aspect of the “tax”:
Calling the tax increase a “user fee” might be one way to sell it. “You’ve heard some quiet whispering that, ‘Hmm, maybe there’s a way to get more revenue that isn’t a tax increase, and fee revenue is a way to do that,” he said. “Our ability to cloak things in the language of the moment is pretty powerful.”
Blumenauer said he has talked to budget negotiators Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray about perhaps including his proposal in any deal they agree on. “I think having some fee increases is very likely to be part of what Paul and Patty come up with.”
He faces formidable challenges, though. Even if Ryan and Murray do reach a deal that includes a gas tax hike, there’s no guarantee that John Boehner will be able to sell it to House Republicans, who may have no problem letting the sequester continue into 2014.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Stephen J. Smith is a reporter based in New York. He has written about transportation, infrastructure and real estate for a variety of publications including New York Yimby, where he is currently an editor, Next City, City Lab and the New York Observer.