Could gas tax be area for vulnerability for Hanger?

Column by Chris Graham
freepress2@ntelos.net

One area where Emmett Hanger could be vulnerable in his re-election bid in the 24th Senate District is in the area of taxes – particularly with his record of supporting an increase in the state gasoline tax.

With gas prices creeping back to the $3-a-gallon range again, any addition to the 17-cents-a-gallon state levy could be the straw that breaks the voters’ back.

“Obviously I have a record that I have to stand on. As part of tax reform, I proposed increasing the gasoline tax. That’s a matter of record,” the Republican incumbent said in response to a question posed at last week’s 24th Senate District candidates forum that was sponsored by The Augusta Free Press and The New Dominion.

Hanger did not rule out support for an increase in the tax – which is used to fund transportation projects in Virginia – in the future.

“We’re at a point now where we have to evaluate our options. Some would suggest that with some of the changes that were made that there is enough money flowing into the transportation trust fund. But we’re going to have to look at it. If we eliminate the abuser fees, I think at least the gasoline tax has to be on the table,” Hanger said, referring to the unpopular fees being assessed on those convicted of criminal driving offenses that have been the subject of much negative public discussion this year.

Democrat David Cox also supports a gas-tax increase to go to road construction – as long as a hike in the tax was “part of a larger package.”

“I would favor an increase of two cents on the gas tax, for several reasons, as one item on the table,” Cox said. “One reason is that the gas tax was set at 17 cents in 1986. It was not adjusted for inflation – and therefore that 17 cents of 1986 purchasing power is now worth nine cents.

“Had it been indexed for inflation, and we would have grown with that, then it would be at 32 cents, which is $750 million additional to the transportation fund, not including what the federal government would have put in in matching funds. We might be complaining about high gas taxes, but we would not be complaining about deficient bridges,” Cox said.

Where the vulnerability for Hanger comes into play is with Libertarian Arin Sime – who is unequivocally opposed to any increase in the state gas tax.

“I do not support increasing the gas tax. I think that while the gas tax and even tolls – you can make the case that those are a user fee – at this point, with the way that funding has been done in Richmond, I think it’s kind of like rewarding bad behavior,” Sime said.

“At a certain point, we need to make sure that Richmond gets the priorities straight first, and then, only then, should we be considering whether or not anything like that should ever be increased,” Sime said.

Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.

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