SALT LAKE CITY -- Stressing the need for more local funds to address road maintenance and repairs, the Utah League of Cities and Towns will push for enabling legislation in 2014, which would give counties the chance to vote on a potential increase in the gas tax.
Lincoln Shurtz, director of legislative affairs for ULCT, said the organization has talked to legislative leaders about pushing the proposal during the next session. He said he recognizes the challenge in trying to pass any tax increase, but he said the measure would make that a local decision.
The state has not raised the gas tax since 1997. Under the current setup, the federal government imposes a 47 1/2 cent tax on every gallon of gas, while the state tax is 24 1/2 cents. A small portion of that state tax, 7.5 cents, goes to municipalities for roads through the state's transportation fund.
Shurtz said there are more than 30,000 miles of road in Utah, and in many cases, municipalities and counties are using revenue from the general fund to try to maintain the infrastructure. He said the general trend is that 50 to 60 percent of all road expenses are funded through the general fund, not from state money distributed to the counties and communities.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, has shown a willingness to at least discuss letting counties have the option to have a gas increase discussed at the local level.
Lockhart told the Standard-Examiner she would oppose a state increase in the tax, but would consider a proposal to allow counties to address the issue in their own jurisdictions.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, describes the gas tax as a great mechanism to pay for roads, but sees little disposition to raise taxes during the 2014 session -- especially as it is an election year. He did not comment directly on legislation, allowing counties to consider the increase.
Veteran lawmaker Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, also thinks political realities will make it hard to consider any kind of tax increase to boost the revenue stream at any level next year in Utah.
"I am still not hearing any discussion among legislators for a tax increase. This being the session before the next general election usually means any tax increase is dead," Hillyard wrote on a blog posted on the Senate website earlier this summer.
Shurtz said local and state officials will have to find new tools to generate revenue. He said too much stress is being putting on sales tax to try to provide revenue for municipalities to address needs.
In a legislative meeting earlier this summer, he said local taxpayers need to know what is at stake.
"The current tax structure won't continue to work. The biggest issue we are looking at is everyone wants easy money," Shurtz said. "When we say that, it's sales tax. We're all looking at the same basic revenue tool for the future. There will have to be a shift of mindset."
Shurtz said community leaders shoulder some of the blame for the current tax situation. He also recognizes any long-term change in the tax setup will involve changes at the state level, through the Legislature. Shurtz said:
"We as cities and towns haven't done a very good job of showing the needs that exist. The dilemma we have is that we have to come to the state Legislature and say 'mother may I.' We recognize we have to come to the Legislature and ask for tools."