GOP lawmaker sponsoring bill to increase state gas tax 8 cents p - KXLH.com | Helena, Montana

GOP lawmaker sponsoring bill to increase state gas tax 8 cents per gallon

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Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell

A Republican lawmaker from Kalispell said Friday he’ll be introducing a bill to increase the state gasoline tax by 8 cents a gallon, to bolster diminishing state highway-construction funds.

“As a career public-safety guy, I just can’t continue to see the conditions of our roads and bridges and not try to do something about it,” said Rep. Frank Garner, the former police chief of Kalispell.

Garner said he hopes to introduce the bill next week and gain the bipartisan support likely needed to pass the measure.

The proposed increase – 8 cents per gallon on gasoline, 7.25 cents per gallon on diesel fuel – would raise the state tax on both to 35 cents a gallon. It would be the first increase in the state motor-fuel tax since 1993.

At 27 cents per gallon, Montana’s current state gasoline tax is right in the middle of state fuel taxes nationwide. The highest one is 50.4 cents in Pennsylvania.

A fuel-tax increase already is one of the hot-button issues of the 2017 Legislature, as some GOP leaders have castigated Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock for not proposing one, even though he knew it was needed to bolster the state’s sagging highway construction account.

Last November, the Bullock administration delayed $144 million worth of highway projects, saying the balance in the highway account was too low to match needed federal funds.

Bullock restarted the projects in January, after the state treasury got an unexpected $10 million refund from the federal government on health-care spending. He said the money enabled the state to loan funds to its highway account.

The governor has said he’ll work with lawmakers to solve the long-term funding shortage in the highway account, but has refused to say whether he supports increasing the state fuel tax, which has supplied about three-fourths of the account’s revenue.

Bullock wouldn’t say Friday whether he supports Garner’s bill.

His office said only that the governor “looks forward to the introduction and discussion of the bill.”

Garner said the increase in his bill would boost revenue for the highway account about $60 million a year.

That money would allow the state to match about $220 million a year in federal highway funds, provide $22 million a year for road-and-bridge repair in cities and towns and also provide money to fund the Highway Patrol, state Motor Vehicle Division and other smaller programs that have used the highway account, he said.  

The fuel tax is the best way to finance highway construction, he said, because it’s essentially a user fee paid by those who travel Montana’s highways and streets.

“Roads and bridges don’t fix themselves,” he said. “And they don’t build themselves. This is a fee directly associated with the use.

“And the good thing about a fee like this, is we get our neighbors to help us pay for it. Every time the guy from Idaho puts the nozzle in the tank, he’s helping to pay for those roads he’s driving.”

Garner said more than 400 bridges in Montana are deficient, 30 percent of the state’s roads are in bad shape and Montana is third-highest in the nation for fatalities per miles driven.

“That just can’t continue to be acceptable,” he said.

Garner said the bill also will call for an audit of the Department of Transportation, to ensure it’s spending the money efficiently. The bill will be titled the Bridge and Road Safety and Accountability Act, he said.

About Mike Dennison

MTN Chief Political Reporter Mike Dennison joined MTN News in August 2015 after a 23-year career as a newspaper reporter covering Montana politics and state government. While some may believe that politics are boring, Mike firmly believes that's not the case if you tell the story with pizzazz and let people know why the story is important.
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