Wyoming needs to fix its roads, but it doesn’t need a 10-cent-per-gallon hike in the state’s fuel tax to accomplish the task.
The state has enough money in its “rainy day’’ account to spend on vital transportation infrastructure, without asking residents and businesses to pay more at a time when many are still recovering from the economic recession.
The House passed the measure containing the proposed tax increase, House Bill 69, by a vote of 35 to 24. We applaud three Republican Natrona County members — Reps. Gerald Gay, Kendell Kroeker and Bunky Loucks — for voting against the bill.
Some observers predict it will easily pass in the Senate, but we encourage senators to use budget reserves instead and kill the bill.
Gov. Matt Mead, a supporter of HB69, is right when he says that good roads and highways are critical to Wyoming. However, we have other ways to get there besides adding to the tax burden.
Wyoming now has nearly $1.6 billion in its Legislative Stabilization Reserve, or rainy day account, which has only existed since 2005. According to Mead’s budget proposal, the goal is to have $3 billion in the fund.
No one has ever said precisely what will be considered a “rainy day’’ so the funds can be accessed, but Rep. Steve Harshman R-Casper, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the time is not here yet.
Actually, Harshman said, Wyoming should be preparing for a “rainy season’’ that could last more than a decade.
But it’s the Legislature’s job to decide how to budget the state’s revenues so it can properly fund Wyoming’s essential needs, including a solid infrastructure. It’s not the role of lawmakers to build a savings account in perpetuity.
Rep. Mary Throne, D-Cheyenne, stressed that the rainy day account isn’t intended to be another permanent mineral trust fund, a savings account that can only be used if the Legislature changes the Wyoming Constitution.
“It shouldn’t be treated as sacrosanct,’’ she added. “It’s intended to be a liquid savings account.’’
During the House debate, Rep. Patrick Goggles, D-Ethete, reminded his colleagues that the reserve account receives no stable source of income. Instead, it was designed to use carryover funds, or excess funds, for priorities established by the Legislature.
Thanks largely to decreasing federal highway funds for several years, the state has fallen behind in highway maintenance and has been using one-time funds each session to try to keep up. But it’s been a losing battle.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation estimates it now needs $134 million per year to maintain the state’s highway system. A 10-cent per gallon increase in the state tax on gasoline and diesel, though, is only expected to raise $72 million a year. Of that amount, only $47 million would actually go to the state’s highway fund — about one-third of the amount needed for maintenance.
Several industry groups — including the Wyoming Taxpayers Association and the Wyoming Trucking Association — support raising the gas tax from 14 cents to 24 cents per gallon. The common reason is the need to have well-maintained roads for business.
No one will argue that isn’t the right goal, but a fuel tax increase that will hit consumers when the state’s economy is still trying to catch up to pre-recession levels is neither desirable nor smart. That’s especially true when the state already has the funds to do the work without further handicapping individuals and families.
“People are getting killed by taxes,’’ said Rep. David Miller, R-Riverton, who unsuccessfully tried to kill the bill in the House.
HB69 may seem to be moving toward passage like a runaway train, but we think the majority of Wyoming residents likely agree with Miller. Those who do should contact their state senator and tell them to apply the brakes to this bill, and use the state’s savings to fix our roads instead of asking people to pay more at the pump.