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The Gas Tax: A Trip Back in Legislative Time …

As Tax Day prompts a rush of political
and media
, it's worth looking back at the history of the federal
levy that helps pay for transportation projects: the gas tax.

jesse_0704.jpgThe late
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) in 1982, when he battled his own party's
attempts to raise the gas tax. (Photo: TIME)

Americans who follow infrastructure can cite the year of the last
federal gas-tax increase (1993) off the top of their heads, but how did
the tax grow to its current, non-inflation-adjusted level of 18.3 cents
per gallon? A helpful
from the Tax Foundation tells the story.

The two most recent gas-tax hikes came in 1993 (a 4.3-cent per
gallon increase) and 1990 (a nickel per gallon increase). Congress
approved both hikes using "reconciliation," the filibuster-proof
legislative tactic that became something of a household name this year
when Democrats
used it
to pass their health care bill.

The gas tax was also raised in 1982 by then-President Reagan, a
fact cited often by House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar
(D-MN) and others who seek to puncture the current bipartisan
to increasing fuel levies. Reagan had vowed just months
before pursuing the tax increase that gasoline fees would not rise
"unless there's a palace coup and I'm overtaken or overthrown," but it
didn't take long for him to change his mind, as the Tax Analysts
newsletter reported:

Despite the absence of a coup, Reagan acknowledged twoweeks later that a gas "user fee" was under discussion. And two weeksafter that he announced his plan to ask the lame-duckCongress to increase the gas tax and earmark the funds for highways,bridges, and mass transit.

Support in Congress was strongand bipartisan.

When the gas-tax increases passed during the Reagan, Clinton, and first
Bush administrations are compared with the current Congress' predicament,
two interesting patterns emerge.

The first: All three hikes approved in the past 30 years had to be
steered past Senate GOP filibusters or Democratic challenges. In 1993,
then-Vice President Al Gore had to cast the deciding Senate vote on
raising gas taxes. In 1990, as Tax Analysts notes,
Sens. Max Baucus (D-MT) -- now chairman of the influential Finance
Committee -- and Kent Conrad (D-ND) both took aim at the proposed tax
increase. And in 1982, then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) led a
conservative rebellion
against a gas-tax increase backed by Reagan
as well as less anti-tax GOP leaders.

The second: All three hikes were approved separately from the
six-year federal transportation legislation that sets national policy
for roads, bridges, transit, and bike-ped infrastructure. The situation
faced by lawmakers this year, in which a gas-tax increase is necessary
to generate sufficient financing for a long-term federal bill, is to a
certain degree unprecedented.

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