The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

June 25, 2008

Lawmakers OK freeze in gas tax escalator

CHARLESTON — West Virginia lawmakers breezed through Gov. Joe Manchin’s laundry list in this special session Wednesday, with only a few feathers ruffled over his proposed freeze on the escalator in the gasoline tax.

Manchin proposed a moratorium on the add-on tax, one that is computed on the average wholesale price of gasoline from July through October each year.

Almost overlooked was the main reason Manchin had called the session — an outlay of $25 million to help move teachers in the defined contribution system back into the old retirement plan.

Without fanfare, that bill cleared easily, as did a number of appropriations bills, including $5 million to upgrade the state’s ancient computer system, although Manchin had wanted $30 million.

“Every penny helps,” Manchin said earlier in the week, explaining motorists would benefit by a freeze to keep the escalator from pumping up the fuel tax another 6 cents in January.

Senate Finance Chairman Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, reluctantly voted for the bill, but stood by his earlier comments to The Register-Herald that he had serious reservations about diverting money from the general revenue fund into the Division of Highways, albeit this tack was used two years ago.

Questioned by Majority Leader Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, he called the approach “shortsighted” and warned motorists might suffer with less-than-normal road upkeep.

“We can’t maintain the same level of services,” Helmick said.

“Politically, it’s popular. At the end of the day, we’re going to take money away from our roads.”

Majority Whip Billy Wayne Bailey, D-Wyoming, joined Sens. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, and Joseph Minard, D-Harrison, in voting against the measure.

Bailey suggested road maintenance ultimately would suffer and motorists given a token tax break would reap an expensive harvest when vehicles are damaged as highways deteriorate for lack of funds.

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