W.Va. Democratic lawmakers call on quick action for gas tax holiday
By STEVEN ALLEN ADAMS
CHARLESTON — Democratic members of the Legislature, after hearing Gov. Jim Justice express interest in a 30-day gas tax holiday, are calling for a special session next week to provide relief for motorists in West Virginia as soon as possible.
Members of the Democratic caucuses of the Senate and House of Delegates held a virtual press conference with reporters Tuesday morning one day after Justice said he was giving a 30-day freeze of the state’s 35.7 cent gasoline tax some serious thought for a future special session agenda later this summer.
“It’s been almost three months ago when this conversation began, when gas was approaching $4 a gallon,” said Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier. “Now gas is at, in some places across West Virginia or approaching places across the state, $5 a gallon and we are still pushing for gas tax relief.”
The Democratic caucuses plan to circulate a letter to all 100 members of the House and 34 members of the Senate to sign expressing their support for either a 30-day gas tax holiday or a rebate for West Virginia motorists. They’re also calling on the governor to call a special session next week to coincide with already scheduled legislative interim meetings to pass a gas tax freeze quickly.
“I think it’s clear we’re going in next week. Let’s get it done. Let’s not wait until July,” said House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio. “What can we do in a time of crisis says a lot about our legislative body in the state of West Virginia. And this is a crisis for many West Virginians. There’s no doubt about it.”
Justice said he would release further information about what he intends to do regarding a gas tax holiday by the end of the week.
“I think that the reason why the governor is considering a gas tax holiday is because he’s hearing the same thing that … all the Democrats that have signed onto this have heard from their constituents,” said Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha. “Right now, people are being crushed by utility bills, They’re being crushed by inflation, and now they have to pay for their fuel more than they ever would’ve imagined.”
“We’re hearing daily from folks who are hurting,” said Delegate Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall. “Let’s remember we have folks, especially our seniors, that are on fixed incomes. Everything’s going up, from their electric bill at home to the grocery store prices.”
The Democratic minority penned a letter to Justice and legislative Republican leadership shortly after the end of the 2022 legislative session in March calling on them to consider a 30-day gas tax holiday. The tax goes to a special revenue fund, the State Road Fund, and is used for highway construction and maintenance.
At the time, Justice derided the gas tax holiday request as a “publicity stunt,” but said he would be willing to consider a gas tax holiday if presented to him by legislative leadership. Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, released a joint statement raising concerns about how a gas tax holiday would affect the state’s road bond ratings and guarantees.
Blair and Hanshaw continue to stand behind their statement. But Blair, speaking on WV MetroNews Talkline Tuesday, said a bill for a gas tax holiday would be a “non-starter” with the Republican majority. He said it would make sense to target any future tax relief to West Virginia residents, such as providing a rebate on personal property taxes on vehicles.
“Keep in mind, 20 percent of the fuel tax is paid for by out-of-staters,” Blair said. “Every time you see a tractor-trailer driving down the road — whether they bought the fuel in the State of West Virginia or not – is actually paying a portion of that into our road fund. During this tax holiday, it would make it so that doesn’t happen.
“If memory serves me, their original statement said that they support tax relief for working West Virginians. Well, here’s the perfect opportunity,” Baldwin said. “Let’s put our money where our mouth is. We’ve talked about tax relief ad nauseum for a long time. This is a chance to do it. We have the money to do it.”
Democratic House members sent Justice another letter on April 22 just prior to the two-day special session beginning April 25 and ending April 26, calling for a gas tax holiday to be placed on the special session agenda. Democrats introduced a bill for a gas tax holiday, but it was never taken up by the Legislature.
“The governor’s response at that time on April 22 was to do what? He went hunting,” Fluharty said. “He was out hunting while we were in Charleston trying to do the people’s work. The entire Democratic legislative body has asked for this gas suspension. We have been met with deaf ears from the Governor’s Office to Republican leadership and everybody in-between. Nothing, no response.”
The lawmakers proposed using $35 million from available surplus tax collections for the current fiscal year to cover the loss in gas tax revenue and add additional dollars to the State Road Fund. The state collected more than $1.1 billion in surplus tax collections for the past 11 months of the fiscal year as of the end of May with one month left in the fiscal year.
Once $793 million in one-time expenditures included in the surplus section of the new fiscal year 2023 general revenue budget is subtracted from the $1.1 billion surplus, that leaves more than $313 million in available surplus which could grow to more than $400 million when the new fiscal year budget kicks in on July 1.
According to AAA, the average cost of a gallon of gas in West Virginia as of Tuesday was $4.74, a 14.8-percent increase from $4.13 per gallon a month ago and a 58-percent increase from nearly $3 per gallon one year ago.
The high price of gas is causing some to drive less and not fill up as often. According to the Department of Revenue, the state road fund brought in $101 million for the month of May, which was $25 million less than estimated. Year-to-date collections for the current fiscal year of $1.2 billion were $74.1 million less than estimated.