After gathering dust for a year, a proposal that would raise Alaska's gas tax by 9 cents per gallon got a legislative hearing Thursday.
The measure, House Bill 59, was proposed by Gov. Tony Knowles at the start of last year's legislative session along with other measures to address the close to $800 million difference between state revenues and spending. The measure was quickly sent to the House Transportation Committee, where it languished for 363 days.
Rep. Andrew Halcro, who took over as chairman of the House Transportation Committee for this session, put it on the table right away. He said he expects a revised version of the measure will likely move out of his committee and onto another following its next hearing, which is slated for Feb. 10.
Halcro said the resounding voter rejection in September of a plan to use some of the Alaska Permanent Fund to help pay for state services was one of the reasons he scheduled the bill. However, he repeatedly gave notice that he didn't want the extra tax to be used to build new roads and ferries. Rather, he is ``adamant'' that the new money be spent exclusively on maintaining the highway system that's already in place.
Dennis Poshard, legislative liaison for the Department of Transportation, told the committee that Knowles introduced the tax increase to raise money to match federal funds for new projects. The amount of federal money being made available, he said, has been going up faster than the state can come up with the cash to pay its share of new projects.
``This is a way of raising the revenues to pay for that state match so we can continue to receive the full amount of federal funding we're eligible to receive,'' Poshard said.
He said Alaska's current 8-cent gas tax is the lowest in the nation. Even with the bill's proposed tax, 17 cents per gallon, residents in 45 other states would still be paying more.
The tax, he said, would raise close to $29 million per year.
Juneau Rep. Bill Hudson, a Republican, tried to deflect comments by other committee members who suggested Anchorage residents shouldn't be taxed to pay for Southeast's ferries.
``We're a part of the blacktop,'' Hudson told the committee. ``We just happen to be a moving part of the blacktop.'' He said that this year, unlike last year, the measure may have enough support to gain momentum at the Capitol.
``I think it definitely has a chance,'' he said.
Rep. Vic Kohring will be casting a nay on the bill when there's a committee vote. The Wasilla Republican is one of four House members who formed a conservative GOP minority, and one of many who have sworn to oppose any new taxes.
``I think that before there is any talk of raising taxes, there has to be further cuts and restructuring of government,'' he said.
Knowles' press secretary, Bob King, said the administration is willing to talk about changes to the measure. He had been surprised by news that it had actually had a hearing.
``We're pleased that it's getting an airing before the Legislature,'' he said.