Delaware legislators look to revive temporary gas-tax increase

DOVER — The gas tax: Year three.

A group of Democratic lawmakers plans to bring forward a bill that would impose a temporary 10-cent increase on the state’s gasoline tax.

Rep. Sean Matthews, D-Talleyville, one of the main sponsors of the legislation, believes it is important to at least have a conversation about an increase, which would fund road and bridge projects. Seriously considering a small raise in cost is the “responsible, adult thing to do,” he said.

Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, is of the same mindset.

“I think it’s long overdue,” she said. “We haven’t increased the gas tax in, what, 21 years? Obviously the price of road construction and asphalt and labor and all these other things have gone up, probably quadrupled, if not more, in the last 21 years, and we just haven’t kept pace with what we need to be maintaining the roads, the bridges,” she said.

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Gasoline prices started at $1.55 per gallon at the Gas & Go in Smyrna on U.S. 13 North last week. A group of Democratic lawmakers plans to bring forward a bill that would impose a temporary 10-cent increase on the state’s gasoline tax. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Delaware’s gas tax, which has not been adjusted since 1995, is currently 23 cents.

Under the bill, the 10-cent hike would expire in one year. All the funds raised would be put toward infrastructure projects.

Gov. Jack Markell infamously proposed a 10-cent hike in 2014 to raise $50 million annually, but the idea was soundly rejected, shot down by legislators on both sides of the aisle. Last year, Democratic leadership made several tentative and unsuccessful attempts to introduce a smaller increase, including in the early morning hours of July 1, the last day of session for the year.

This most recent effort is sure to face strong resistance, especially in an election year. While Republican opposition is a certainty, it’s also likely fellow members of the Democratic caucuses will be reluctant to throw their support in, making passage challenging.

Sen. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, said the Republican caucuses would need to see spending reforms before supporting a higher gas fee. Republicans have advocated for making Delaware a right-to-work state and changing the wage scale paid to laborers on state contracts, believing those policy shifts would help save the state money and benefit the economy.

Minority Leader Rep. Danny Short, R-Seaford, called the bill a “step in the wrong direction,” fearing higher gas prices would lead to people driving less often and thus a potential dip in revenues.

“Our revenue on the gasoline tax or even tolls is up significantly due to the lower price of the gasoline at the pump, so people are driving more and buying more fuel and we’re benefiting,” he said.

Proponents cite the low prices as a reason to support the tax. According to GasBuddy.com, a gallon of fuel costs $1.65 on average in Delaware, down about 50 cents from one year ago and $1.80 from two years ago.

A spokesman for the Department of Transportation said although the agency does not have a dire need for revenue thanks to legislation the General Assembly passed last year, it would welcome the funding.

“Over the longer term we remain concerned about a continuing decline in fuel tax revenues as vehicles become more fuel efficient,” DelDOT spokesman Geoff Sundstrom said. “One way to solve this problem would be to raise the gas tax. If that happens, our preference would be to see the state fuel tax indexed for inflation, so our revenues would rise along with project costs.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. Markell said he has not talked to lawmakers about the bill but “is glad that legislators recognize the benefits of investing in infrastructure.”

According to a poll of 1,240 Delaware drivers from the transportation group AAA Mid-Atlantic, 51 percent of respondents said they supported an increase of 5 to 10 cents in the

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Sean Matthews

state’s gas tax. Sixty-two percent said gas prices impact how often they drive and how they view the economy. The poll was conducted at the end of January.

“We recently asked drivers about raising the state gas tax and found they are equally divided about its merits, although our poll shows more in favor than not,” Jim Lardear, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Director of Public and Government Affairs, said in a statement.

“That means we need to better educate drivers about the need for more money for roads and bridges. Drivers ultimately pay the price anyway. If not for better, safer roads, drivers spend more money in repairs to their vehicles because of potholes — or worse, pay with more crashes.”

Despite the adage about the dangers of raising taxes in an election year, supporters believe a temporary increase is necessary.

“If we can’t do important things in election years then we shouldn’t be down there,” Rep. Matthews said.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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