Voters will decide whether to boost fuel taxes in Oklahoma

| Friday, August 12, 2005

Oklahomans will head to the ballot box Sept. 13 for a special election to decide whether to boost the state’s fuel taxes to help fix roads and bridges.

If approved by voters, State Question 723, would raise the Oklahoma’s diesel and gasoline fuel taxes to 22 cents a gallon. Currently, the diesel tax is 14 cents per gallon and the gasoline tax is 17 cents per gallon.

The tax increase would be phased in gradually over four years.

The anticipated revenue, estimated at $150 million annually, would be earmarked to improve state roads and bridges. A provision would lock in the amount the Oklahoma Department of Transportation 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 ballot initiative is the result of an effort by Oklahomans for Safe Bridges and Roads. The group collected nearly 290,000 signatures on a petition early this year to get the measure on the ballot.

Oklahoma Taxpayers United, formed to oppose the measure, is drawing support from truckers.

“No one will deny that our roads and bridges are not all in top form,” Katy Anderson, a spokesperson for Oklahoma Taxpayers United, said in a written statement. “But the fact of the matter is that our legislators have already taken great steps to begin fixing the problem.”

Oklahoma lawmakers this spring approved a deal to eventually pump $170 million more each year into road and bridgework without raising taxes.

The new law, previously HB1078, adds at least $17.5 million a year for the state Transportation Department.

The plan includes a “lockbox” provision intended to keep future legislatures from diverting the new money from roads and bridges.

The added revenue source for roads and bridges is coupled with the recent passage of the federal highway bill that will dole out $2.8 billion to Oklahoma in the next six years.

With prices at the pump continuing at or near record levels and the additional dollars earmarked for Oklahoma roads and bridges, the push to tack on higher fuel taxes in the state appears to face an uphill climb to win over voters.

According to a poll by SurveyUSA released by KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City, 80 percent of respondents in the Sooner State will vote “No” in next month’s special election.

However, those poll results aren’t deterring the advocates for higher taxes.

In an effort to get the initiative approved, the Oklahomans for Safe Bridges and Roads have raised more than $1 million for a media campaign scheduled to kick off in late August or early September, The Associated Press reported. Its major donors are contractors and others involved in highway and bridge construction.

Anderson said the media blitz is simply a desperate attempt to manipulate voters, despite the fact extra revenue is already earmarked to the state for roads and bridges.

“The passage of additional unnecessary taxes in an economy that is already depressed will have a devastating effect on the transportation industry and must be stopped,” Anderson said.

Rick Craig, director of regulatory affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which is encouraging professional truck drivers in Oklahoma to make sure they cast a ballot on or before Sept. 13, said it’s important truckers make time to vote.

“The opinion poll would seem to indicate this initiative will go down in flames, but opinions don’t count until they are expressed at the ballot box. The self-serving, pro-tax forces have amassed a sizable war chest and cannot be taken for granted,” Craig said.

Truckers and others unable to visit a polling booth on Election Day can cast their ballot by absentee. The last day to apply for an absentee ballot is Wednesday, Sept 7. For an application, visit: www.state.ok.us/~elections/abs_yell.pdf. Applications can also be picked up at any county election board and turned in to the board in person or by mailing or faxing it. Ballots must be returned by 7 p.m. on Election Day.

Oklahomans who have yet to register to vote have until Friday, Aug. 19, to sign up to vote on State Question 723. Contact your local election board for more information. For a list of election boards in the state, visit: www.elections.state.ok.us/cebinfo.html.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor
keith_goble@landlinemag.com

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