Leading West Virginia Democrats on Tuesday again called for the state to suspend its tax on gasoline, pointing to Maryland’s dropping prices as proof that the plan could work.
Democrats called a news conference to respond to dismissive claims made last week by Gov. Jim Justice and Republican legislative leadership. Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, said that, after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed a 30-day gas tax pause into law Friday, neighboring residents already are enjoying savings at the pump. Hogan is not the only East Coast governor getting in on the action.
“Today, versus a week ago in Maryland, prices are down about 40 cents a gallon,” Baldwin said. “Georgia has done it. Florida and Virginia are planning on doing it, as well.”
According to AAA, the average price for a gallon of gas in West Virginia at this writing was $4.09. In Maryland, the average was $3.78. A week ago, Maryland’s average was $4.25.
Baldwin shared the concerns of Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, that suspending the gas tax would complicate state road bonds that are funded by gas tax revenue. But pausing collection for 30 days while the state is projected to reap a $1 billion budget surplus this summer, Baldwin said, should not be a hard decision.
“We are at a point right now with our state finances in West Virginia that we have surplus funds immediately available to pay the road fund in full to cover the costs of this,” he said. “I have not heard a single elected official say that they are opposed to this idea. I’ve heard them say they would like to be able to do it. Well, then let’s find ways to do it.”
A Hanshaw representative said Tuesday the speaker stands behind his statement from Friday. A Blair representative said the senator was unavailable for comment. The Governor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.
Delegate Gary Howell, R-Mineral, said Tuesday he supported a tax shift as opposed to a blanket pause. By raising the consumer sales tax about 1.8%, the state could replace its lost gas tax revenues. Howell said border communities like his are going to be hurting the most due to neighboring states’ actions.
“I can literally look out the window into the state of Maryland” and see drivers flocking to gas stations there while those in Keyser sit empty, Howell said.
By the time the state Legislature convened a special session to pass the tax shift, Mountain State businesses likely would see the same effect Maryland businesses are: People coming for cheap gas and buying beer, lottery tickets and food in their state, Howell said.
“If West Virginia was to shift, I think that would happen here,” Howell said.
Howell noted that more than a month ago, in the legislative session, he introduced House Bill 4764, which would do just what he proposed, but permanently. As sky-high prices were not a problem Feb. 15, Howell said, he didn’t press the House finance chairman to run the bill. Howell said this would promote tourism.
House Minority Leader Doug Skaff Jr., D-Kanawha, said he understands the wrong people first floated the idea. He said he’d be happy to let Justice stand in front of the cameras afterward if the governor could make it happen.
“If the governor wants to take this issue and run with it, do it. Take credit for it. We’ll take a backseat,” he said.
Skaff is the president of HD Media, publisher of the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, pleaded with the governor to follow the Republican governors of Maryland and Virginia and quit playing politics.
“[Justice] quickly turned [it] into a partisan issue when we were just trying to have a bipartisan effort here to help West Virginians get instant relief at the pump,” Fluharty said. “With every passing day, the governor and his administration comes up with another excuse. The bottom line is other states are doing it.”