Kaine Rejects Gas Tax Increase

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

RICHMOND, April 25 -- Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) rejected an increase in gas taxes to pay for transportation improvements, prompting a leading Republican ally in the Senate to accuse the governor Tuesday of pandering to national anxiety about rising fuel prices.

On Washington Post Radio's "Ask the Governor" program, Kaine said "the right way to solve this problem is to do it without a gas tax."

Senate Transportation Chairman Martin E. Williams (R-Newport News) said he was "sickened" by Kaine's comments. They were "a wimp-out," he said, which would undermine the Senate's support for a tax of 6 cents a gallon on terminal operators and would give comfort to Republicans in the House of Delegates, who have refused to accept tax increases to pay for transportation improvements.

"You talk about an absolute no-leadership comment," Williams said. "Where's the leadership in that? . . . He's leaving us all out to dry. Truly, with those comments, he showed he is not one ounce of the solution. There's not one ounce of risk there."

The Democratic governor's comments came as President Bush called for an investigation into price gouging at the pump and as experts predicted prices could rise to $3.25 a gallon by the middle of the summer. Kaine also said on the radio that he would "not hesitate" to put the state's price-gouging laws to use this summer if there is evidence that gas stations are improperly raising prices. But he suggested that oil companies, not local stations, are more likely to be pocketing unwarranted profits.

Kaine's tax comments represented a crack in his bipartisan alliance with the Senate, which is pushing a $1 billion-a-year plan to pay for road projects and rising maintenance costs. About $300 million of that would come from big oil companies that operate gas terminals in the state.

Kaine has proposed raising about $1 billion as well, but largely through an increase in the sales tax on cars. He has never supported the Senate's gas tax position, but Tuesday's comments were his strongest in opposition.

"I've told the Senate leadership that there is no way that the ultimate compromise, in my view, is going to include a gas tax," he said on the radio, adding that if the House and Senate agreed to increase the tax, he could not say whether he would veto it.

Several senators were preparing to participate in a scheduled conference call with Kaine on Tuesday evening as word of the interview spread. Senate Republican leaders postponed plans for a news conference Wednesday promoting their transportation plan.

"The governor's statements today create a lot of uncertainty about what the situation is," said J. Scott Leake, a strategist for GOP senators.

House leaders have also been trying to capitalize on the public's concern about gas prices, calling Monday for the Senate to abandon its gas proposal.

"It was bad idea when . . . gasoline was just over $2 per gallon at the pump," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem). "It's an even worse idea now."

Other senators remained steadfast in their support for a gas tax. Several said it is the fairest kind of user fee: Those who use the roads more pay more, and out-of-state drivers are hit along with Virginians.

"It's not good timing, and it's not a good place to be politically," said Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania). "But I still think, given the reality of fixing transportation . . . it has to be at least part of the discussion."

Sen. William C. Wampler Jr. (R-Bristol) said he believes Kaine's gas tax position has been consistent. And he credited the governor with focusing attention on traffic congestion and dangerous rural roads.

"Transportation has never been more elevated as a statewide issue than it is today, and I think this governor is the one who has made it that issue," he said.

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