By Barry Massey
SANTA FE — The House did a quick about-face on a proposal that would increase the state tax on gasoline by 2-cents-a-gallon to help finance improvements to roads used by school buses.
The bill initially failed Tuesday on a tie vote, 31-31, but a short time later the House revived the measure and set it aside for later consideration. It’s uncertain when the bill will be debated again.
The bill would increase the tax on gasoline to 19-cents-a-gallon and would earmark about $18 million a year in revenues to back the issuance of up to $200 million in bonds.
All school districts would receive a share of the financing to upgrade school bus routes, such as paving the road, and to improve public school parking lots.
Gov. Bill Richardson opposes the proposed increase in the gas tax, according to Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for Richardson.
“Working New Mexico families should not be asked to pay higher gas taxes and shoulder the burden for these improvements,” said Gallegos. “The governor is committed to investing in schools and he will look for other ways to pay for these needed infrastructure improvements.”
Rep. Dan Silva, D-Albuquerque, said school bus routes cover about 98,000 miles of roads and nearly 10,000 miles of those are unpaved or not maintained. Nearly 184,000 children ride buses to school each day.
He and other supporters said road improvements would increase safety for school children and provide a general economic boost to the state.
Opponents objected to the tax increase and said the proposed road work could be financed with part of the revenue windfall that state government is enjoying from taxes and royalties on energy production.
“Why should we create a new tax or a new user’s fee when we have money in the general fund to do this,” said House Republican Whip Terry Marquardt of Alamogordo.
He suggested the state could pay for the proposed road work with money that will go to finance a commuter rail system planned by Gov. Bill Richardson.
Silva had called the proposed gas tax increase a “user’s fee,” but Republicans scoffed at that description.
Rep. Donald Bratton, R-Hobbs, pointed out the governor had called a special session of the Legislature last year to provide New Mexicans with relief from high gasoline prices and anticipated increases in home heating costs.
“Yet we’re here raising the cost of energy,” Bratton said of the proposed gas tax increase.