Afternoon Jolt

Friday Jolt: Gas Taxes and Oil Prices

Transit advocates get unclear mandate, Cantwell gets mad.

By Afternoon Jolt November 30, 2012


Afternoon Jolt

Today's Winner: "Unclear"

The state house transportation committee, packed with transit liberals such as Reps. Joe Fitzgibbon from Burien (D-34) and Marko Liias from Edmonds (D-21), had been hoping for a clear reading from legislative staff this week as the committee was briefed about an October State Supreme Court ruling that seemed to create some wiggle room in the 18th Amendment rule that traditionally prevents gas tax revenue from being spent on anything except roads.

This fall, the court held that using the state's hazardous substance tax on oil, which funds hazardous waste cleanup, did not violate the state's constitutional rule that motor vehicle fuel taxes must be used exclusively for roads. Their reasoning: The 18th Amendment, which generally requires that gas taxes be spent on highways, didn't preclude the legislture from creating additional taxes that may fall on motor vehicle fuel that are used for other purposes.

However, house staffers ruled out a liberal reading of the case, saying in a briefing paper that current gas taxes that are dedicated to roads—and most likely any extension of those taxes—would still have to go exclusively to roads.

Legislative staff ruled out a liberal reading of the case saying that current gas taxes dedicated to roads—and most likely any extension of those taxes—would still have to go exclusively to roads.

And what about creating a brand new motor vehicle fuel tax? Staff wrote:

"It is unclear whether a new motor vehicle fuel tax that was separate and distinct from the current motor vehicle fuel taxes, placed solely on motor vehicle fuels, and not dedicated to highway purposes would be found to be subject to the 18th amendment."

They did offer some hope for transit advocates, though, writing:

"However, a more general tax that happens to fall on motor vehicle fuels and is not intended for highway purposes is ... fairly clearly not subject to the 18th amendment."

However, no one could come up with a likely example outside of the HST.  Certainly, legislators could use the HST to fund transit, but, says Rep. Fitzgibbon, "the public probably wouldn't like that" because they wouldn't see the relationship between the tax and transit.

Tonight's Winner: US Sen. Maria Cantwell

Corporate accountability crusader Cantwell will be on the Rachel Maddow show tonight stumping for her call to have the Department of Justice investigate oil companies for artificially jacking up gas prices through market manipulation.

Gas prices in western states have climbed to over $4 and Cantwell, along with six other West Coast senators (including US Sen. Patty Murray) sent a letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder earlier this week demanding an "investigation of possible market manipulation and false reporting by oil refineries which may have created a perception of a supply shortage, when in fact refineries were still producing."

Cantwell, who made a similar demand on the Federal Trade Commission over the summer and who added provisions to the Wall Street reform bill regulating financial derivative markets and including regulations on oil speculators, has been tenacious on this issue.

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