House Republican leaders have been meeting behind closed doors, poring over amendments and trying to decide what to do about Gov. Mike DeWine’s proposed 18-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase.
DeWine suggested the addition to Ohio's current 28-cents-per-gallon gas tax, which would raise an estimated $1.2 billion per year for road and bridge maintenance and fill what the state transportation director called a $1 billion state shortfall.
DeWine is proposing that the full increase take effect July 1, with future annual increases automatically tied to inflation.
But House Republicans need to work out some key questions before voting within the next week or so on the transportation budget:
• Is 18 cents more per gallon the right number? DeWine’s transportation director laid out his best case for the money, but getting lawmakers to approve a 64 percent gas-tax hike is difficult.
• Should the increase be phased in? The last time a gas-tax increase was approved, in 2003, it was phased in over three years.
• Should it include automatic increases? The gas tax has not been indexed to inflation for more than 20 years.
• Are there other ways to raise money? Fees on electric and hybrid vehicles are under discussion.
• What about public transportation? Ohio’s transit spending is among the lowest in the nation.
• How many votes do Republicans have? More than a few majority Republicans will refuse to support a gas-tax increase. Democratic leaders say their goals include lowering the 18-cent amount, phasing it in, adding money for mass transit and giving a bigger cut to local governments.
“It’s clear Republicans are planning to raise the gas tax, so we need to be strategic about directing more resources back home for working people, small businesses and families,” said House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, D-Akron.
Rep. Gary Scherer, R-Circleville, vice chairman of the Finance Committee, said he thinks 18 cents is the correct number, though he would prefer that it be phased in over three years. “I believe the need is very genuine,” he said.
Scherer said he and others also are proposing a new, annual electric-vehicle fee, using a formula that tries to estimate what a typical driver in Ohio pays in gas tax for the year.
Rep. David Leland, D-Columbus, said he is proposing to increase public-transit funding from the $40 million a year in DeWine’s budget to $185 million per year. “It’s a desperate need in the state,” he said.
The $185 million is based on a study of transit funding by the Ohio Department of Transportation, and the figure also has been advocated by Joanna Pinkerton, president of the Central Ohio Transit Authority.
“Dozens of businesses have reached out to COTA to expand our services to their front door — needs we are trying to meet, but are constrained by lack of state funding,” Pinkerton told lawmakers.
“It is odd that we would promote a system that allows potentially empty vehicles to clog and damage roads," she said, "while high-occupancy vehicles are not prioritized when they could be part of the funding solution."
Pinkerton stressed that Ohio’s infrastructure is not prepared for the shifting demographic, in which the percentage of Ohioans older than 65 and younger than 35 is going from 22 percent to 70 percent in a couple of decades. A number of those people, Pinkerton said, will not drive, “and all should have new, innovative, more cost-effective mobility choices.”
House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, said last week that he recognizes the need and is willing to talk about public-transit funding. “I’ve heard various numbers. Land on one, please.”
Generally, 17 percent of the retail cost of a gallon of gas last year came from state and federal taxes, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The federal tax is 18.4 cents.
According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, 27 states have raised their gas taxes since 2013, including every state adjacent to Ohio.
The gas tax affects what people pay at the gas pump, but the effect is not always obvious.
At a certain point, it's definitely noticeable. Pennsylvania's gas tax is nearly 31 cents per gallon higher than Ohio’s. According to GasBuddy, average gas prices over the past three months in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have been consistently 20 to 60 cents higher than in Columbus.
In Michigan, where the gas tax is 16 cents higher a gallon than in Ohio, prices in Lansing over the past three months have at times been lower than those in Columbus, but were usually about 5 to 10 cents higher. Prices in Detroit were lower than in Columbus about a quarter of the time, and were nearly even or about 5 to 10 cents higher on other days.
In Kentucky, where the gas tax is 2 cents lower than in Ohio, the average state gas prices tracked fairly even with Ohio from late November through late January, and since then, Ohio’s prices have been 5 to 10 cents higher.
Statewide, Ohio’s average gas prices have been consistently below the national average over three months.