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Playing politics with the gasoline tax

In a crass display of election year politicking, the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill wants to lift the 4.3 cent gasoline tax, so as to lower the price at the pump. If there is any doubt that the gas tax is being used for political purposes, one only has to listen to the GOP refer to it as the "Gore Tax." They are referring to Vice President Al Gore's tie-breaking vote in 1993 to raise the gasoline tax.

Rolling back the tax sounds wonderful, but you have to remember that for every action there is a reaction. Sam Beverage, West Virginia's acting transportation secretary and highways commissioner, held a news conference last week to urge Congress not to lift the tax. He said the state would stand to lose in excess of $200 million in federal highway funds in the next two years if the tax were lifted.

That could put state highway construction in a terrible bind, according to Beverage, including the Corridor H project.

"I don't think anyone should be fooling with this gas tax," said Beverage. "It would definitely have a negative impact on West Virginia and all transportation systems nationwide."

And it's not just new highway construction that would be affected. The federal funds also go toward repair of existing roads and bridges, potholes and guardrails. So it's more than just an economic issue, it's a public safety issue, as well.

And while the Republicans are talking up this cut in the gasoline tax, there is some question as to whether it would actually result in lower prices. Jim Zoia, a spokesman for Rep. Nick Joe Rahall, D-W.Va., says the savings would be negligible.

"The tax is collected at the wholesale level, not at the pump," he said. "At the most, the average American motorist would see a 50 cent a week reduction."

But, says Zoia, they might see a minuscule reduction if -- and this is a big if -- the oil companies passed on that savings, which is unlikely.

We're encouraged by a vote Thursday in which the U.S. Senate voted 66-34 opposing any rollback in the gas tax. We hope the House does the same.

What the GOP leadership in Congress needs to be doing right now instead of playing politics is working with the Democrats and the White House to craft a reasonable and comprehensive national energy policy. If the U.S. were able to produce more of its own oil rather than buy it from OPEC nations, we might actually see prices drop at the pump.

Today's editorial reflects the opinion of the Exponent editorial board, which is comprised of James G. Logue, Kevin S. Courtney, Patrick M. Martin, Matt Harvey and J. Cecil Jarvis.

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