Change sought in Oklahoma's vehicle tax allocation; similar efforts elsewhere

| 12/21/2004

An Oklahoma state lawmaker says the state doesn’t need a fuel tax increase.

Instead, Rep. Jim Newport said he would pursue legislation he sponsored last year, requiring the state to spend motor vehicle taxes on road repairs and maintenance.

The bill never made it out of committee in the 2004 session, but Newport, R-Ponca City, hopes the new Republican leadership in the Oklahoma Legislature will be more willing to listen this time around.

Newport’s idea is to take a portion of the tax collected from vehicle registration and tag fees to pay for roads and bridges.

“Isn’t that what the tax should be for?” he told The Oklahoman. “That only makes sense.”

About $300 million of that tax is earmarked for education and other spending. Newport said that would not change. The general revenue fund gets the other 50 percent, or about $300 million.

“I want to direct that money back to the Department of Transportation,” he said.

The proposed legislation would send $60 million of the motor vehicle tax to the agency the first year, $120 million the second year, and it would cap at $180 million.

Newport’s announcement follows a coalition’s recent push for a statewide vote to raise fuel taxes to fix Oklahoma’s roads and bridges.

Oklahomans for Safe Bridges and Roads has collected more than 230,000 signatures on a petition that only needs 219,000 valid signatures to get the measure on the ballot.

The group wants the state’s diesel fuel and gasoline taxes raised to 22 cents a gallon. Currently, the diesel tax is 14 cents per gallon, and the gasoline tax is 17 cents per gallon.

The anticipated revenue, estimated at $150 million annually, would be earmarked to improve state roads and bridges. A provision would lock in the amount ODOT now receives from fuel taxes so that lawmakers couldn’t reduce appropriations in response to additional funds the agency would get from the tax hike.

The Sooner State is not alone in its effort to seek requirements that motor vehicle taxes are used for roads and bridges.

A state committee in Vermont is recommending cuts in funding for public transportation, bike paths, aviation and railroad improvements to put more money toward road and bridge work.

Vermont currently allocates $33 million annually to pave roads and $49 million to repair bridges, but Agency of Transportation officials told the Rutland Herald an additional $70 million annually is needed to maintain the state’s highway system properly.

In response, lawmakers last spring formed the Transportation Infrastructure Committee to investigate how more money could be found.

The nine-member panel has recommended the state shift more of its annual $360 million transportation budget away from other transit programs to allow more spending on road and bridge repairs.

That means less would go toward funding things such as rest areas, public transportation and other nonmaintenance items.

The committee did not say how much money should be reconfigured or what programs should be slashed, instead leaving that up to the General Assembly.

A group of transportation advocates want the state of California to stop diverting fuel tax money to uses other than transportation, according to media reports.

That has happened despite a ballot measure, approved by nearly 70 percent of the state’s voters in 2002, mandating that California could not divert the funds away from transportation except in an emergency. Proposition 42, as the measure is known, requires a two-thirds vote of the state’s Legislature to move the money elsewhere.

That has led to a number of public figures calling for an end to the diversions.

Lawmakers are already acting to close the loophole in Proposition 42 that has allowed continued diversions. The Sacramento Bee reported that Assemblymen Tom Harman, R-Huntington Beach, and George Plescia, R-La Jolla, would introduce a constitutional amendment to do just that.

Missouri voters on Nov. 2 overwhelming approved Constitution Amendment No. 3, which requires “all revenues from the existing motor vehicle fuel tax (less collection costs) be used only for state and local highways, roads and bridges.”

The amendment also calls for the use of all other vehicle taxes and fees to pay off the state’s highway bonds.

It would also take $30 million in fuel tax now diverted to non-highway state duties and return it to highway uses.

More than 78 percent of those voting – 1.9 million – approved the measure, with only 21 percent – roughly 521,000 – voting against it.