Gov. Jim Justice has a final prognosis for a gas tax holiday in West Virginia.
“It’s dead. It’s gone. That situation is over.”
Justice made that declaration in a wide-ranging news briefing today, after opening the possibility of a break on the 36-cents-a-gallon gas tax earlier this week.
Debate over the gasoline tax has rekindled as prices have spiked to about $5 a gallon. Today’s average price for a gallon of regular gasoline in West Virginia is $4.82, according to AAA.
Several states, including neighboring Maryland, have allowed gas tax holidays as prices hit historic levels. Democratic lawmakers in West Virginia have been pushing for such a holiday for several months.
Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, today expressed disappointment over the governor’s conclusion.
“People are hurting badly and we can do something to make gas more affordable right now here in West Virginia. A gas tax holiday would save folks $7 each trip to the pump. For those of us who aren’t rich, that adds up to a lot of money. It’s enough to pay for a commute to work, two gallons of milk, or a prescription co-pay,” Baldwin stated following the governor’s remarks.
Baldwin alluded to more than $1 billion the state has brought in so far this fiscal year beyond the general fund revenue estimates. “To sit on $1.1 billion in Charleston while West Virginia families make sacrifices is just plain wrong,” he said.
Until Monday, Justice had expressed skepticism, saying such a break would be temporary and wouldn’t get to the root causes for high gasoline prices. The governor has also worried about whether a holiday would disrupt the way West Virginia pays its obligations on road bonds.
But then, early this week, Justice alluded to possibility.
“I’ve done a lot of thinking about maybe a gas tax holiday, and I want to hold up just a little bit longer until maybe our next briefing,” said Justice, a Republican, earlier this week. “But between now and then I’ll make a decision with regard to that.
“But I do think that if we can help our folks — and I believe that there’s surely enough room to be able to help — but I do think that’s something that maybe, just maybe with families right now thinking about going on vacation and things like that — if there’s a way to help for one month, maybe a one-month holiday, I don’t think it would be detrimental to us from the standpoint of our ability to do all the good stuff that we do in regard to roads.”
Today, the governor said that time gave members of the legislative majority time to make clear that they don’t believe the gas tax holiday is a good idea.
“We really hadn’t heard from the majority of the Legislature,” he said. “We hadn’t heard from them and they were probably being pretty silent. You know, a lot of people are questioning me — why am I not moving on this? And I really felt pretty strongly that it would be a waste of time. Well, we heard from the majority did we not? And they do not have an interest.”
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw and Senate President Craig Blair, both Republicans, had already put out a statement on March 18 saying a gas tax holiday is among policies “that sound good but, in reality, would do far more damage to our state in the long term.”
The two legislative leaders said people deserve a financial break, but said the state can’t risk interrupting a dedicated payment source for its bond obligations.
Nevertheless, leaders in the legislative majority reiterated their concerns about the gas tax holiday again after Justice brought it up. “The gas tax is a knee-jerk reaction, and it’s shortsighted,” Blair said Tuesday on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
House Finance Chairman Eric Householder concurred while speaking today on Panhandle Live on WEPM Radio. “I have to agree that it’s a little short-sighted,” said Householder, R-Berkeley.
Householder underscored the worry that suspending the gas tax could imperil the state’s bond obligations and also expressed concern that the state could miss opportunities for matching highways dollars.
The governor today called legislative Democrats “grandstanders” for continuing to push for the gas tax holiday.
Yesterday, the Democrats had praised his consideration of the temporary tax break. They hoped he would decide to push for legislative approval or wield his emergency powers.
“I think the governor is finally listening to people who are saying to him the same things that we are hearing,” said Senator Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha.
Justice today said the tax break would be create more complications than providing relief.
“I didn’t think it was a good idea before,” Justice said, “and to be honest I still don’t think it’s a good idea.”