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Wyo. committee advances fuel tax increase proposal

Ben Neary, Associated Press

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- Proclaiming that Wyoming needs to find a long-term, predictable source of highway funding, a legislative committee on Monday advanced a bill that would raise fuel taxes.

The House Revenue Committee voted 7-to-2 Monday morning to recommend approval of a bill to hike fuel taxes by a dime, from 14 cents to 24 cents a gallon on gasoline. The bill now advances to the House.

The committee vote came after two hours of testimony, much of it from industry and local government officials who said that although nobody likes paying higher taxes, they believe the time has come for the state to bite the bullet on highway funding.

"A Band-Aid fix is really what the state has been doing over the past five or six biennial budgets," said Roy Cohee, whose family runs an oilfield trucking business in Casper.

Cohee, a former Wyoming house speaker, said his business employs about 60 people and logs about 2 million miles a year delivering drilling and mining equipment. "The roads could be crumbling years from now if a reasonable $70 to $80 million isn't put into them now," he said.

Gov. Matt Mead is pushing the tax increase, which would raise more than $70 million a year for state and local road projects. Mead has emphasized that out-of-state motorists would foot much of the bill for maintaining the state's highway system.

Wyoming has put hundreds of millions of dollars from the state's general fund into subsidizing highways over the past decade. Mead has said that approach has hampered the transportation department's ability to plan projects because it's never certain how much funding it will have in the future.

Brett Moline, with the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation, said his members oppose increasing the fuel tax. "I have a concern, as my members do, that this is going to cause an increase in the price of fuel at the pump," he said.

Tony Gagliardi, Wyoming state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, told the committee that most of his membership also opposes hiking the tax.

"We are not out of the recession at this time," Gagliardi said, adding that the last thing businesses need is an increase in the cost of getting their products delivered.

Maureen Bader, with the Wyoming Liberty Group, also urged the committee to reject the bill.

"I'm here today to urge you to stop shrinking the budgets of hard-working Wyoming families," Bader said. She said her group believes that tax increases in general are "silent job killers."

Committee Chairman Mike Madden responded that he didn't hear in Bader's comments, "a good, viable solution for the long-term funding of the agency."

Madden also questioned Bader's claim that increasing the fuel tax would necessarily result in lost jobs. He noted that fuel costs rose about a dollar a gallon from late 2010 to late 2011, during which time Wyoming added total jobs.