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Published: Tuesday, 3/25/2003

Plan to hike gas tax, driver fees advances


COLUMBUS - Ohio Senate Republicans struck a deal with Democrats last night for votes to hike taxes and fees on motorists while cutting truckers a break by eliminating the 3-cent surcharge they pay on top of the tax for diesel fuel.

The bill, passed by a bipartisan 6-3 in the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee, would raise the gas tax 6 cents, 2 cents a year through 2005, for state and local highway and bridge projects. It would also hike driver's license fees by $12 and vehicle registration fees by $11.

The Senate plans to send the bill back to the House today in hopes of getting a final compromise to Gov. Bob Taft by week's end.

Sen. Lynn Wachtmann (R., Napoleon), one of the more conservative Republicans in the General Assembly, cast a rare pro-tax vote on the bill.

“I look at the fuel tax as a user tax,” he said. “Obviously, it would be great if fuel prices were $1.12 a gallon like they were last year instead of the $1.54 I saw driving into Columbus. It's a painful time for consumers to be hit with this, but I want good highways.”

The new U.S. 24, one of the projects that could be financed with additional gas tax revenue, bisects his rural district.

The $4.6 billion, two-year Ohio Department of Transportation budget would make Ohio's gas tax, 28 cents a gallon once fully implemented in 2005, the highest in the region.

The committee voted to gradually eliminate the 3-cent surcharge on diesel fuel over three years, ultimately resulting in the loss of about $35 million a year to the state. State and local governments expect to reap about $540 million more a year once all the tax and fees are implemented.

Legislative leaders added language to cancel the final 2-cent installment if the federal government agrees to return 95 percent of what Ohio sends to Washington in federal gas taxes back to Ohio as well as stop holding the state's use of ethanol against it when it comes to distributing highway funding.

Together that would mean the federal government would have to send $300 million more to Ohio to reach the threshold of canceling 2 cents of the gas tax raising a little more than $120 million.

ODOT had hoped to use the higher tax revenue to sustain a $250 million state highway construction and improvement program over 10 years, which ODOT Director Gordon Proctor estimates would take care of about 40 percent of the projects now in the best position to pour concrete. That list includes the new U.S. 24 and improvements to I-475 and I-75 in northwest Ohio.

The bill, under threat of federal highway-dollar sanctions, still includes a provision added in the House to lower the legal threshold for drunken driving from a blood alcohol content of 0.1 percent to 0.08 percent.

The committee axed a House plan to exempt cars five years old or newer from tailpipe emissions testing in 14 northeastern and southwestern counties along with a 50-cent-per-day rental car tax to pay off an estimated $25 million to the company that does the testing.

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