Democrats bid to boost road funding

CARSON CITY — Taxes on truckers and golf courses also would help meet the state’s $5 billion highway construction shortfall if Senate Democrats get their way.

In an eleventh-hour move to secure more money for roads, Senate Democrats plan today to try to amend an Assembly-approved bill that would redirect three existing taxes to fund $1 billion in highway construction.

Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, said Saturday that all 10 members of her caucus support an amendment to place an advisory question before voters in the 2008 election asking whether the state should raise the diesel fuel tax by 6 cents a gallon.

Truckers now pay 27 cents a gallon in local and state diesel taxes, while the state and local gasoline tax is a combined 33 cents a gallon. The diesel tax hike would raise $23 million a year.

The Nevada Department of Transportation faces a $5 billion highway construction shortfall through 2015.

Sen. Terry Care, D-Las Vegas, also intends to propose an amendment today to repeal a $4 million tax break given golf courses in 2005 and dedicate that money to highway construction.

The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn Monday, so any amendments approved today would require quick review and approval in the Assembly.

Gov. Jim Gibbons, however, was not pleased with the moves by Democrats, including Titus, whom he defeated in the governor’s race in November.

“I am disappointed by these last-minute political maneuvers on the transportation proposal, which only serves to delay a bipartisan compromise bill that allows for road construction without raising taxes,” he said. “This legislation meets our critical transportation needs without a tax increase, and I see no reason to add unnecessary amendments.”

Senate Transportation Chairman Dennis Nolan, R-Las Vegas, said there are enough votes to pass the bill today with or without the Democratic changes. The bill needs approval from at least two-thirds of the 21 senators.

Titus’ amendment would be added to Assembly Bill 595, a proposal approved 40-2 on Friday in the Assembly.

Early Saturday, the Senate Taxation Committee voted 5-2 in favor of the measure.

Gibbons testified in support of the $1 billion bill at the Senate hearing and debated Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, on whether tax increases are necessary to fund highway construction.

Coffin pleaded with the governor to drop his opposition to tax increases and back a diesel fuel tax increase.

Gibbons said, “I don’t believe we should raise taxes every time we want something.”

Any tax increases imposed on the trucking industry would be passed on to consumers, Gibbons said. People would pay more “for a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread” in grocery stores, the governor said.

“We are at a crisis point in Southern Nevada,” Coffin said. “Because of your position on no new taxes, we have been severely handicapped in what we can do. Make an exception to your position.”

Earlier in the session, Coffin said the trucking industry had committed to supporting a 6-cents-per-gallon diesel tax increase, but the industry backed off because of Gibbons’ no-tax pledge.

“We have a difference in philosophy,” Gibbons told Coffin.

Titus said Gibbons should support her amendment because it would be the voters who decide whether to increase the tax.

“He is Mr. Initiative himself,” she said of Gibbons, who headed the Education First ballot initiative. “Right now, truckers are paying considerably less in fuel taxes. All we want to do is equalize it.”

In a Feb. 13 interview, Gibbons said he does not oppose allowing the public to increase taxes through ballot questions. “I always said, the public runs this state,” Gibbons said then.

Even if citizens backed a diesel tax increase in the 2008 election, it would not be imposed until the Legislature meets in 2009.

Paul Enos, executive director of the Nevada Motor Transport Association, said Saturday that earlier in the session he had agreed to diesel fuel increases, but that was at a time when other industries, including gaming, were talking about accepting tax increases to fund highway construction. That all changed in recent weeks, he said.

“The trucking industry is not going to be singled out for new taxes,” Enos said. “When everybody is at the table, we will be there with them.”

In addition to his effort to repeal the $4 million tax break for golf courses, Care also wants an amendment to require any property taxes that Clark County dedicates to highway construction projects to be spent in Clark County.

State Transportation Director Susan Martinovich said during the Taxation Committee hearings that such an intent was the state’s plan in the first place.

A vote on the three amendments was delayed Saturday night so that members of the Senate could examine them, according to Nolan.

“We are waiting for a bunch of answers,” he said.

With 11 members in the 21-member Senate, Republicans could kill all three Democratic amendments.

Under AB595’s current funding plan:

• The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority would contribute $20 million a year in room tax revenue to the highway construction fund.

• Clark and Washoe counties would divert a portion of existing property tax revenue now spent on local capital improvement projects to the highway construction fund.

• Rental car companies would give the state one-fourth of the revenue they now generate from imposing a 4 percent tax on rentals. The state has allowed them to collect and keep this “tax” to pay their car registration fees.

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