- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2008

A few politicians are pumping gas-tax holidays and rebates as a way to aid drivers paying close to $4 a gallon — but in the Washington area, at least, such proposals seem to be running on empty.

Presidential candidates Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, back gas-tax relief. But Democratic frontrunner Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and some other politicians, pundits and economists ridicule proponents, saying they’ve gone into the tank for cheap votes.

An effort to repeal Maryland’s gas tax for the summer also sputtered.

Maryland Sen. Andrew P. Harris of Baltimore County proposed repealing the tax between Memorial Day and Labor Day and making up the shortfall with excess money from the state’s automobile insurance fund.

“I think the message it would send is we actually care about what people pay for gas,” Mr. Harris said yesterday. “It’s something government should do.”

Mr. Harris, who is also running for Maryland’s First Congressional District seat, unsuccessfully proposed calling a special session of the General Assembly to jump-start his plan.

The accelerating cost of road improvements to deal with increasing traffic congestion has made gas-tax relief a nonstarter in Maryland and Virginia, where revenues from the tax finance most of the work.

Maryland leaders, who recently dedicated half of the increase in the state sales tax to paying for road improvements, have balked at the idea of repealing the tax for any length of time.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, proposed making increases in the gas tax automatic during last year’s special session of the General Assembly. And Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Southern Maryland Democrat, proposed increasing the gas tax by 12 cents.

Both proposals failed, however.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, called a special session of the state legislature for June 23 to attempt to raise $1 billion in new transportation spending.

Mr. Kaine proposed a variety of tax and fee increases, with one glaring exception: a higher gas tax.

“One of the reason’s there is no gas tax increase is because the price of gas is going up and it’s going up rapidly,” said Gordon Hickey, a spokesman for the governor.

Maryland’s gas tax, 23.5 cents per gallon, Virginia’s total levy of 19.6 cents per gallon, and the District’s of 20 cents per gallon, are below the national average state gas tax of 28.6 cents per gallon, according to the industry group American Petroleum Institute. The lobbying group counts related items such as tank storage fees and Northern Virginia Transportation District taxes in its Virginia figure.

The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon.

Gas prices have gone “beyond the tipping point,” conceded John B. Townsend II spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. But gas tax relief may not do enough, he said.

“Do you really alleviate the situation by repealing the gas tax?” he said. “Prices jump 5 cents a gallon overnight.”

The national and Washington-area average price of regular unleaded gas rose to a new record of $3.88 per gallon yesterday, according to Mr. Townsend. The five-cent overnight jump represented the 17th consecutive record. In the District, the average price is $3.96 cents, he said.

“Hopefully people gassed up earlier in the week,” Mr. Townsend said. A survey of credit-card activity by Mastercard shows that motorists are filling up earlier in the week in an effort to avoid weekend price increases, he said.

The price of crude oil rose $1.38 to settle at $132.19 a barrel in New York yesterday.