MONTPELIER — Efforts in the Vermont Senate to minimize the gas tax increase on motorists this year could end up hitting truckers, who, under the latest version of the transportation bill, could see the excise tax on diesel go up 4 cents over the next two years.
The trucking industry emerged unscathed from the House last month, where lawmakers opted for a funding stream that limited tax increases to unleaded gas. But Sen. Dick Mazza, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the tractor-trailers hauling freight share responsibility for the Vermont roads on which they travel. His committee is poised to ratchet up taxes on diesel by 2 cents this year and another 2 cents in 2014.
“It’s all users that have to be involved, whether it’s the trucking industry or automobiles,” Mazza said Thursday. “We need everybody to be part of the solution.”
The revenue package approved by the House would increase gas taxes by a projected 6.7 cents in 2013 and 7.8 cents next year. Mazza said shifting a portion of the burden to diesel would, along with some other tweaks, help the state keep this year’s jump in the gas tax to around 5 cents and hold the increase in 2014 to less than 7 cents.
Roland Bellavance, owner of Bellavance Trucking in Barre, said shifting a portion of the tax increase to diesel won’t necessarily deliver any relief to the motorists Mazza is looking to help.
“This type of increase has to be passed on to consumers that are already getting hit with the gas tax increase,” Bellavance said Thursday.
Bellavance, who also serves as president of the Vermont Truck and Bus Association, said 2 cents may not sound like much. But he said that’s a 7 percent increase in the 29 cents per gallon truckers now pay on diesel. Another 2 cents next year, he said, would mean a 14 percent increase.
He said his 100-truck fleet paid $131,000 last year in Vermont diesel fuel taxes. The proposed increase would jack that figure up to around $150,000 annually by 2014.
Ed Miller, a lobbyist for the Vermont Truck and Bus Association, pointed out the excise tax on diesel is already 10 cents higher than the 19 cents per gallon on unleaded. And truckers, he said, are paying about 50 cents more per gallon at the pump right now than drivers of conventional automobiles using regular unleaded.
The gas tax increase is one component of a revenue package aimed at generating the $30 million to $36 million the Shumlin administration says is needed to avoid leaving federal transportation money on the table next year.
The House proposed a $10 million bonding package to fill some of the gap, and the rest will have to be made up with either tax increases, budget cuts or a combination of both.
Transportation Secretary Brian Searles said Thursday that securing federal match money by reallocating money from elsewhere in the budget would mean pulling from either the $90 million maintenance budget or the $110 million town program. Cutting either, he said, could have noticeable ramifications on maintenance of the state’s roads and bridges.
Searles said the administration stayed away from the diesel tax in its proposal mainly because the fuel raises so little in comparison to the tax on unleaded. A penny on a gallon of diesel would generate about $640,000 annually.
But Mazza, a Grand Isle County Democrat, said every bit helps. He said the increased diesel revenue would also allow his committee to eliminate a House provision that would tie a portion of the gas tax to an inflationary index, a measure he said he opposes.
Bellavance said that if lawmakers and the Shumlin administration do hit up truckers for additional revenue, they’d better at least make sure the money goes directly to transportation infrastructure. More than $50 million is diverted annually from the transportation fund to pay for education, public safety and other programs.
“They’re spending millions on things that have nothing to do with roads, and it doesn’t seem right,” Bellavance said. “If they’re going to raise this money, they ought to at least make sure it’s going to go to roads and bridges.”
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