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States scrape for funds to keep pothole-pocked highways patched

Weather-battered, traffic-worn roads and inflation-assaulted highway construction funds might be expected to push more states toward another round of gasoline tax increases.

But thus far, there is little to suggest that this will be the case this year. Proposals to boost motor fuel taxes are fast falling by the wayside. Several state legislatures have already wrapped up their 1982 sessions and many others now are in their final days.

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The fact that most state legislators are running for reelection this fall has contributed to the reluctance of many to pass even a modest hike in state levies on gasoline, diesel fuel, and gasohol.

Some states are faring better than others in keeping up with needed road construction and repairs. But with few exceptions, highway funds - largely fed by motor fuels taxs - are fast drying up.

Falling gasoline prices coupled with the increased use of more fuel-efficient cars, resulting in lower gasoline sales, are having the greatest impact on states that switched to a variable levy in anticipation of growing revenues as gas consumption and prices rose. Particularly hard hit are states like Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Washington, where gas tax revenues are tied to percentages of wholesale or retail prices, instead of a fixed amount per gallon.

In Kentucky, for example, the variable levy brought in the equivalent of 10.4 cents per gallon (cents/gal.) a year ago. It is expected to dip to 9.5 cents/gal. on April 1, notes Catherine Yoe, of Highway Users Federation. Kentucky lawmakers, however, recently adopted a change effective July 1 making the minimum level 10 percent of the wholesale price.

Besides Kentucky, only four out of 18 states that considered measures to increase or supplement motor fuel taxes this year have passed them so far.

Arizona's bill, signed into law Feb. 26, raises the state's levy from 8 cents/gal. to 10 cents next July 1, 12 cents on July 1, 1983, and 13 cents a year later.

On March 22, Idaho lawmakers enacted a 1-cent/gal. motor fuels tax increase, the state's second such hike in two years. The increase brings the overall tax to 12.5 cents/gal. and is earmarked exclusively for county roads.

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Maryland lawmakers just passed a 4.5 percent two-stage levy boost - 2 cents this year and the rest in 1983, which would bring the gasoline tax there to 13.5 cents. On June 1, 1984, the state is to switch to a variable levy arrangement pegged to 10 percent of the wholesale price with increases limited to 1 percent per year thereafter.

Virginia's newest measure, which cleared its final legislative hurdle March 13, adds a 3 percent excise charge, based on wholesale gas prices, to the state's current 11 cents/gal. motor fuels tax. The measure is similar to one approved in Pennsylvania last year, which adds a 3.5 percent levy based on wholesale fuel prices to its 11-cents/gal. flat levy.

The new three-stage gas tax increase approved in Arizona replaces a 1.6-cents hike scheduled for next July 1 that was to be followed by a shift to a variable arrangement beginning next Jan. 1. That measure was suspended by a successful initiative petition drive by irate voters that places the question on the state ballot next fall.

Road activists currently are focusing considerable attention on Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, and Oregon, where either state legislators or voters will deal with the gasoline tax issue between now and August.

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