Even before President Bush's retreat from his adamant opposition to new taxes, an all-out lobbying war was shaping up over proposals to increase taxes on gasoline or other forms of energy. This week's White House announcement set the troops in motion.
The American Automobile Association and the American Petroleum Institute, representing a coalition of trucking interests, motorists, road builders and farmers, called a press briefing yesterday to start their campaign against any gasoline tax increase.
Not that the Bush administration has proposed a gasoline tax -- or any other form of tax increase, for that matter. But the moves by the opposition are a preview of what is likely to be played out over issues as varied as sin taxes and farm policy throughout the year as the tax landscape is redrawn under budget deficit pressures.
The energy industry has been aware for some time that deficit-reduction pressures, combined with low oil prices and the possibility of environmental benefits from reduced fuel consumption, make oil and gasoline likely targets of revenue-raising measures. A 1-cent increase in the federal gasoline tax would raise an estimated $1 billion a year.
"Our coalition regards the announcement by the White House as breathing new life into the controversy. But it also resuscitates the opposition," said William Berman, energy policy lobbyist for AAA. He handed out a list of organizations that have opposed using motor fuels taxes for deficit reduction. It had nearly 1,000 names on it, ranging from the National League of Cities to Ron's Propane Service in Wyoming.
He also pointed out that 242 members of the House have signed a resolution introduced 18 months ago saying that "the federal excise taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel shall not be increased to reduce the federal deficit."
Also yesterday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce held a meeting to plan its anti-fuel-tax strategy. Earlier this month, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association came out against a "carbon tax" on all fossil fuels proposed by Rep. Fortney H. "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.).
The idea of a fuel tax increase has been floating around the Energy Department for some time. Linda Stuntz, deputy undersecretary for policy, said on C-SPAN's national call-in TV show last month that "gasoline is the cheapest liquid you can buy" and suggested that a tax increase "might be something we should look at."
U.S. gasoline taxes are among the lowest in the industrialized world. According to the Energy Department, the average U.S. retail price for unleaded regular gasoline at the end of 1989 was $1.01 a gallon, of which 20 cents was state and federal taxes. In West Germany, gasoline was $2.43 a gallon, of which $1.63 was tax. In Japan, the price was $3.33, of which $1.59 was tax.
The American Petroleum Institute, which represents the oil industry and has been conducting a furious lobbying fight against some provisions of the revised Clean Air Act, recently circulated a position paper saying that "cleaner air and a lower federal deficit are in everyone's interest ... but there is no compelling logic for linking the two through a gasoline tax."
The Highway Users Federation weighed in yesterday with a report that summarized the arguments for and against an increase in the gasoline tax and concluded that the latter outweigh the former.
In favor of an increase are the revenue benefits, ease of collection and the probability of reduced consumption. But a gasoline tax increase would fall more heavily on lower-income consumers, would have greater impact in the South and West where people drive longer distances to work than in the Northeast and would contribute to inflation.
Berman said some members of the coalition, including AAA, are less opposed to a broader-based energy tax that would be levied on all forms of fuel, including crude oil, rather than just gasoline. Stark's bill would place a $25-a-ton levy on carbon emissions, phased in over five years. This would be equivalent to $15 per ton of coal, $3.25 per barrel of oil and 40 cents per million cubic feet of natural gas.
Stark, a member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, introduced his bill as an environmental measure, not a revenue measure, but he said it would raise $30 billion a year when fully effective.