Gurney's Inn
April 26, 2006

Still Seeking Gas Tax Relief

Independent / Jessica Mackin OUCH! Gas prices skyrocketed beyond the $3 mark on the East End last week. Assemblyman Fred Thiele and the East End's County Legislators Jay Schneiderman and Ed Romaine are trying to get some sales tax relief, but Democrats in the state assembly and county legislature are not — ahem — pumped about their ideas. (click for larger version)
"Democrats make me puke!" So said the cantankerous cartoon character Cartman in an episode of Comedy Central's wildly popular series "South Park." While state and county Dems may not be triggering nausea, they could be behind some of the gas pains motorists are feeling. On both levels of government, Democrats have nixed efforts to provide the equivalent of Tums for gasoline sales tax.

Last week, State Assemblyman Fred Thiele lambasted colleagues in the legislature for failing to support his attempt to cap the state sales tax on gasoline. The vote was 63 to 77, along party lines, with Assembly Dems defeating the measure. The bill, which would collect tax on just the first $2 per gallon, passed overwhelmingly in the state senate.

New York has the highest gasoline taxes in the nation, Thiele pointed out. The national average tax is 46 cents per gallon; in New York drivers pay 63 cents per gallon. The higher the price per gallon, the more tax is collected. "Instead of letting the public keep these tax dollars," Thiele said of bill opponents, "they'd rather have it as part of their surplus."

The public has been slow to anger over the soaring costs, Thiele acknowledged. After Hurricane Katrina, constituents appeared understanding of the unusual circumstances that led to the price spike. When the prices dipped down to under $3 a gallon, hovering around the $2.80 mark, the assemblyman recalled, "People were okay with that."

But now, as the summer season looms, and the prices increased yet again, flying past $3 to as much as $3.77 on the South Fork, "I am getting a significant amount of telephone calls [from constituents]," Thiele reported.

Assembly Republicans are going to try to bring the sales tax cap back up for another vote before the session closes for summer break. Thiele said he was optimistic political pressure and consumer outcry will mean a different result next go-round.

Following the vote earlier this month, Thiele rebuked Assembly Dems for "turning a deaf ear to the middle class." On the county level, North Fork Legislator Ed Romaine took an uncharacteristically softer tact. As prices topped $3 a gallon, Romaine implored colleagues on the legislature to support his plan to adjust the sales tax the county charges. His proposal, cosponsored by the South Fork's Jay Schneiderman and debuted last month, has been tabled by the Democratically controlled Budget and Finance Committee, reportedly at the behest of County Executive Steve Levy.

When the measure premiered, Levy derided it as mere political grandstanding because the pair of Republicans failed to demonstrate how they'd offset the potential loss of millions in revenue. Romaine countered that the rising prices meant an unanticipated windfall for county coffers. Still others argued that the increase in gas prices resulted in a decrease in other sales tax revenue because consumers tend to cut back on spending when their budgets are busted at the gas pump.

The county initiative, however, wouldn't result in an instant tax repeal. All it does is ask state officials to give local lawmakers the power to set their own gas sales tax rate. Amounting to approximately 19 cents for gas priced at $2.47 per gallon, the tax could be repealed in its entirety or just partially. According to Romaine, soaring prices meant an extra $8 million in revenue.

The Budget & Finance committee is slated to take up the issue again when it meets on May 9.

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