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Dem lawmakers defend W.Va. gas tax moratorium idea

Steven Allen Adams PAIN AT THE PUMP — Democratic lawmakers in the West Virginia Legislature stood by their calls for pausing the state gasoline tax in a press conference Tuesday.

CHARLESTON — Despite Gov. Jim Justice calling the idea a “publicity stunt” and Republican legislative leaders saying no, Democratic lawmakers stand by their call for a 30-day freeze of West Virginia’s tax on gasoline.

“Gov. Justice and the state House and the State Senate have responded, essentially saying ‘we’d like to do that, but we can’t do that.’ We want to say yes, we can do that,” said Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier.

Democratic members of the state Senate and the House of Delegates held a virtual press conference Tuesday morning after unveiling their gas tax moratorium plan last week.

The Democratic legislative caucus is calling for the state to implement a 30-day suspension of the state’s gasoline tax. West Virginia taxes gasoline at 35.7 cents per gallon. Gas tax revenue for the state in February came in at $20.3 million in February.

To replace the lost revenue for the State Road Fund, Democrats also proposed backfilling the lost revenue with $35 million in surplus tax collections for the current fiscal year. As of the end of February, the state has nearly $600 million in surplus tax collections, with the state expected to end the 2022 fiscal year in June with between $750 million and $1 billion in surplus.

While lawmakers believe that the governor has the authority under the state of emergency West Virginia has been under because of COVID-19 to pause the tax, Baldwin said they are calling for a special session and drafting legislation to quickly pause that tax for 30 days and back fill with surplus dollars.

“We are working on a bill to do this. If everyone who wants to cut taxes like they say they do and everyone wants to help people who are struggling right now like they say they do, now is the time to act,” Baldwin said. “We want to get it done and no elected official has said they are opposed to do it, so we’re saying we’re open to options. It seems the path of least resistance is to do it through a special session.”

According to AAA, the average price for a gallon of gas in West Virginia as of Tuesday was $4.09, with the U.S. average price per gallon was $4.24. Regionally, North Central West Virginia, the Potomac Highlands, and the Eastern Panhandle are seeing the highest gas prices in the state.

According to Land Line, a publication of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, as many as 18 states are looking to provide either a temporary freeze in gas taxes or offering alternative tax relief to compensate for higher gas prices.

Maryland and Georgia were the first states to temporarily freeze their state gas tax. Maryland collects 36.1 cents per gallon while Georgia collects 29.1 cents per gallon. Maryland’s freeze is 30 days, while Georgia’s freeze ends May 31. Instead of a gas tax freeze, California is sending residents a $400 tax rebate. Other states have called for a freeze of the federal gas tax, which is 18.3 cents per gallon.

According to AAA, gas prices in Maryland have dropped by 47 cents since the state implemented its gas tax moratorium. Both Georgia and Maryland are led by Republican governors.

“Today, West Virginians are paying 30 cents more per gallon than our neighbors in Maryland and we know why,” said House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio. “It’s because their governor took action and their legislature took action and they made it a bipartisan issue. We sent a communication to (Justice) last week and it quickly turned into a partisan issue when we were just trying to have a bipartisan effort here.”

The gas tax freeze idea was dismissed by Justice last week in a press release and during his Friday COVID-19 briefing, calling it a “publicity stunt” and stating that only the Legislature can freeze the gas tax despite past examples of previous governors freezing past taxes during emergencies. During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Justice moved the personal income tax deadline from April to July.

“… This is nothing but a political stunt, designed to get their names in the headlines and make me look like the bad guy,” Justice said.

“We are elected to represent the folks we represent,” said state Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha. “We’re elected to give voice to their concerns. Raising those concerns to the Governor, which is all that we’ve done, is not grandstanding. It’s called helping our constituents. That’s called being responsive to our constituents. It’s called doing our job.”

Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, also released a joint statement last week raising concerns about suspending the gas tax. The state’s road bonds depend on revenue from the gas tax. They also raised concerns about the federal government clawing back transportation funding. Democrats said using surplus revenue to replace the gas tax revenue renders those concerns moot.

“All these states who are implementing something right now are seeing record surpluses right now as well. They’re using their budget surpluses to backfill,” said House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha. “No state is going with their funds unfunded. We are blessed to do the same right now. We have a surplus of funds right now and that would require (the Legislature) to re-allocate that, and that is fine.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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