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Wyo. Senate gives first approval to fuel tax hike

Ben Neary, Associated Press

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- A bill to raise state fuel taxes by a dime a gallon received preliminary approval in the Wyoming State Senate on Tuesday.

The bill would raise the tax from the existing rate of 14 cents a gallon up to 24 cents for gasoline and diesel. The hike would raise about $70 million a year, rough two-thirds for the Wyoming Department of Transportation and one-third for local governments.

The bill already has passed the House and needs two more votes in the Senate.

Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette is chairman of the Senate Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee. He introduced the bill by saying that some lawmakers have been pushing to increase the state tax on gasoline for nearly a decade.

"Long term funding has been a continuous issue for WyDot," Von Flatern said. He said the state has appropriated about $700 million from its general fund to the agency over the last nine years. That approach has left the agency without any certainty of what it's funding will be year to year, he said.

"Every year the agency would wonder if they're going to get any more money, what projects they can plan, what projects they can start, depending on basically the whims of the Legislature," Von Flatern said. "So we're trying to get some kind of long term, fixed funding that they realize they can plan for."

Gov. Matt Mead had called on lawmakers to approve an increase in the fuel tax in his State of the State address last month. He emphasized that out-of-state drivers use more than half the fuel consumed in the state.

"I don't want to continue to deplete large amounts of general funds that could be used for education, for savings, for health, for seniors or the disabled, in order to fund what is one of the most basic functions of government — providing sound infrastructure," Mead said.

The Senate on Tuesday defeated an amendment sponsored by Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, that would have hiked the tax 30 cents a gallon on diesel fuel sold through the large diameter nozzles that serve big trucks while leaving the rate unchanged for gasoline.

"What's driving the cost up is the heavy truck traffic on our interstate system," Hicks said. He asked why, if one 80,000-pound semitrailer does as much damage to the roadway as the passage of thousands of passenger cars, the state taxes the vehicles at the rate.

Hicks emphasized that many small towns in Wyoming don't have grocery stores or other amenities, forcing residents to drive 100 miles or so round trip to larger towns.

Sen. John Schiffer, R-Kaycee, spoke against Hicks' amendment. He drew laughs from his fellow senators when he reminded them that he's in the cattle business but said with a straight face he never loads more than 50,000 pounds in a single truck load.

"That's the gospel folks, it truly is," Schiffer said. "Anyway, I load them up to the max, and then a couple more."

Once his cattle are loaded, Schiffer said they travel a matrix of private, county, state and federal roadways on their way to market.

"It's a system, folks, it isn't I-80 gobbling up everything," Schiffer said, adding that everyone uses roads in the state.

"That's the beauty of what we're proposing here today," Schiffer said of raising the fuel tax across the board. "To say that I-80 should pay for all the road system in Wyoming, I don't believe is right, I don't believe it's good for us as a state."