The Reagan administration is considering asking Congress for a temporary 2-cent-a-gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax to finance needed maintenance on the nation's highways, two top officials told the National Governors Association yesterday.
Budget director David A. Stockman and Transporation Secretary Drew Lewis revealed the idea, which would raise $2 billion a year, as they began a sales effort for the president's new economic plan.
The federal gasoline tax, which goes mainly for highway work, is 4 cents a gallon now.
California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. (D) complained that the surprise gas tax suggestion was a "rather surreptitious, nefarious way to push the states into a higher level of taxation" themselves, since the extra federal tax would lapse after two years.
Generally, however, administration emissaries found a high degree of support from the governors for Reagan's tax and budget plans, even though these would cost state governments some funds.
Georgia Gov. George Busbee (D), the chairman of the association, said that most of the $41 billion in budget cuts that Reagan has proposed "can be absorbed if we are given sufficient time and flexibility to adjust."
"But," he warned, "the cuts are totally unacceptable if flexibility and relief from mandates do not arrive simultaneously."
Stockman promised the governors that the administration would "stick with you" in what he conceded would be a hard fight to get Congress to merge some 85 categorical aid programs into three big block grants for the states and cities. The administration is proposing, health and social service programs by 20 to 25 percent, but to give the states and cities much more leeway than they now have in setting their own priorities.
In a preview of the congressional battles ahead, House Budget Committee Chairman James R. Jones (D-Okla.) told the governors that the House would pass no tax cut bill "until the spending cuts are locked into place." He set forth a schedule that would have the budget resolution approved by mid-July, with the tax bill coming along just behind it -- before Congress adjourns for its August vacation.
The only surprise as the governors began three days of meetings with officials of the new administration was the gasoline tax proposal. Both Stockman and Lewis said it was in "the idea stage," but they were clearly using the meeting to test political receptivity to the idea.
Congress rejected several efforts by President Carter to raise gas taxes by 5 to 15 cents a gallon to encourage conservation. But Lewis said he thought there was a better chance to pass them now as a "user tax" to finance bridge and highway maintenance work that is being cut in the Reagan Budget.
Lewis said the idea was to raise the tax for the next two years. Any state that raised its own tax 2 cents in that period would have the federal tax waived. The additional federal funds would be distributed to the states for their use on roads and bridges.
Brown objected that after the temporary federal tax hike expired, "the states would be leveraged into a position where they have to pick up the taxes." He said, "that pattern of shifting [responsibility] from a higher level to a lower level of government is embedded in the modus operandi" Reagan had used as governor of California.
The administration's proposed budget cuts, sweetened with the promise of increased flexibility at the local level as to the use of federal funds, was greeted as something of a mixed blessing by the governors, who have been pressing for a balanced federal budget and greater fiscal federalism.
The staff of the govenors association has estimated that under the Reagan plan the cities and states would lose about $1.3 billion in federal funds they had expected this year and about $12.5 billion next budget year.
The administration's proposal for a spending cap on Medicaid for the poor appeared to be of concern to several governors, particularly those from states in the Midwest and Northeast that are facing growing levels of unemployment.
Separately yesterday, Stockman and Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan also defended the Reagan proposals on national television. Reagan has proposd a three-year tax cut; some Democrats in Congress prefer to go one year at a time.
Stockman said this would provide too small and uncertain an unducement to bring forth the new investment the Reaganites want. He and Reagan also disputed the charge from some Democrats that the Reagan tax cuts would unduly favor the rich. Stockman said the administration would resist any tax cut that "merely shuffled the tax burden." Reagan said, "What we're trying to do is to be fair about it. Those who pay the most taxes, when we make an equal 10 percent cut across the board, will also get a greater part of the savings, that's only natural. I see nothing wrong in being fair to everybody."