Skinner switches gears on proposed gasoline tax after years of opposition

October 04, 1990|By Doug Birch | Doug Birch,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of Transportation Samuel K. Skinner, long a critic of proposals to reduce the budget deficit with higher federal gasoline taxes, saw the light yesterday.

Echoing President Bush's support for the $500 billion deficit-reduction agreement with congressional leadership, Mr. Skinner told reporters that the package, which includes a 12-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax increase, "made some sense."

That figure includes increases totaling a dime a gallon at the pump by July 1, 1991, and a 2-cents-a-gallon tax levied beginning Jan. 1 at the refinery -- the cost of which is likely to be passed on to consumers as well.

Yes, the breezy, blunt-spoken Mr. Skinner conceded at a press "round table," he had once opposed using gas tax revenue for anything but the transportation trust fund, which is dedicated to highway and mass transit projects.

But that was before he realized that most other industrialized countries pay a variety of bills with revenues from their gasoline taxes.

Yes, he agreed, he once said that if Washington raised its gas tax, that would "pre-empt" similar action by the states.

But "pre-empt," he said, was in retrospect a slight overstatement. "I should have said 'make more difficult,' " he said.

If the compromise passes, the secretary added, his department will "look at" permitting the trucking industry to drive wider, longer, heavier trucks on federal highways. Truckers may need to operate those bigger rigs to compensate them for higher operating costs, he said, although "no decisions have been made yet."

The secretary, who in the past has urged states to raise their own gas taxes so they can foot the bill for more transportation projects, said yesterday he would continue that effort.

He conceded that it would be difficult for states to raise their taxes as long as fear of war in the Persian Gulf continued to drive prices higher at the pump.

But he predicted that the "window of opportunity" for such increases would reopen in the next few months as tensions eased.

The Schaefer administration has long talked about raising Maryland's 18.5-cents-a-gallon gas tax in 1991. But lawmakers here have expressed concern about pushing the cost of fuel even higher.

Secretary Skinner said that half of the 12-cents-a-gallon increase would go into the federal transportation trust fund for badly needed transportation projects. "The package . . . is not the entire enchilada, but at least there's a meal on the plate," he said.

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