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Democrats have turned solidly against gas tax

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The Hill
The Hill
 2021-06-18
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Democrats have turned solidly against the gas tax as lawmakers look for ways to pay for a new infrastructure measure to remake the nation’s roads and bridges.

The tax has long been seen as a regressive measure that hits the poor and middle class, as well as people in rural parts of the country, disproportionately.

But it is also something that Democratic presidents have embraced over the years, from former President Carter, who in 1977 supported raising the tax by 5 cents a year for 10 years, to former President Clinton, who with Vice President Al Gore backed the last hike in 1993.

Former President Obama in the summer of 2008 opposed a gas tax holiday as he ran for the White House, arguing at the time it would save the average consumer little money and would do more harm than good.

But in today’s debate over infrastructure and taxes, there is little if any support for a gas tax among progressives — especially amid reports of a tax policy that lets off the rich, and income inequality that puts the squeeze on the poor.

“When you have Jeff Bezos making as much money as he is, it is not fair for us to then raise the gas tax,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) told The Hill.

Jayapal, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said the thinking around the issue has indeed evolved within the party.

“Over time, as we have become more and more aware of the different ways in which tax structures are regressive or progressive ... it has crystallized for progressives … that this is not the way to go,” she said.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday told congressional reporters that she rejects making “America’s working families” pay for critical infrastructure that “the rest that America’s wealthiest people and their businesses are using without paying for them.”

Groups pressing for action on climate change also aren’t backing a hike in the gas tax.

“There’s been a growing crowd of folks who are saying this is probably not the best direction to be moving in,” said Mustafa Santiago, a vice president at the National Wildlife Federation who focuses on environmental justice.

“There’s a cultural shift that’s happening in our country. People are paying much more attention to who’s been carrying the burdens, who’ve been the ones that are garnering the most impacts,” he added.

President Biden has taken a more progressive stance on taxes so far than Obama, for whom he served as vice president for eight years.

While Obama opposed suspending the gas tax amid rising prices in the summer of 2008, Biden has taken the position that he will raise no taxes on any households making less than $400,000 annually. That includes the gas tax.

A source inside the White House familiar with ongoing conversations confirmed that the Biden administration also does not support indexing the gas tax to inflation.

A bipartisan group of Democratic and Republican senators has suggested indexing the gas tax to inflation as one way to pay for infrastructure proposals. Biden wants to raise taxes only on corporations and the wealthy.

“Penalizing and taxing the overwhelming majority of Americans, including those joining in the rapid transition to electric vehicles, is not an acceptable solution,” said Will Anderson, an associate director at the Sierra Club, an environmental group.

“The climate action we need today requires major investments in our infrastructure. As President Biden has made clear, this must come by demanding the wealthiest Americans and corporations pay their fair share.”

As talks continue between the White House and Capitol Hill, aligned Democrats on the outside are looking to test messages around inequality and taxation ahead of the next round of elections.

During the 2020 presidential cycle, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was praised by progressives for proposing an “ultra-millionaire” wealth tax, which she introduced with other Democrats in the Senate in March. Jayapal, who co-sponsors in the House version, said “the gas tax is sort of the opposite” of her bill with Warren in that it would tax everyone and therefore hit poorer Americans harder.

One progressive group predicts the messaging around wealth, income and taxes will carry over to 2022. According to a survey conducted by Data for Progress this week, 47 percent of respondents polled “strongly oppose” raising the gas tax, while 71 percent “oppose” it overall.

The gas tax increase is “one of the most unpopular policies I’ve ever polled,” said Ethan Winter, a senior analyst for the liberal think tank. “It’s down there with banning meat.”

Pushing a controversial position with day-to-day implications, Winter argued, would hurt a party that has to defend and possibly pick up new seats in order to maintain their Senate and House majorities.

“People commute to work every day, many of them do it by car, and they are finally attuned to the price of a gallon of gas,” Winter said. “It hits them in their pocketbooks.”

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