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Virginia's gas tax and the effort to reach a balanced budget

Robyn Crozier, of Australia, pumps gas into her tank at a local Shell station Friday, June 13, 2008, in Scottsdale, Ariz. The price of gas continues to soar in Arizona as Crozier paid $4.23 per gallon for unleaded regular. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Ross D. Franklin/AP
A driver pumps gas into their car.

Gas prices across Virginia are more than $4 a gallon. That has consequences for lawmakers trying to balance the budget.

Virginia's gas tax was created in the 1920’s as a way to finance construction of roads for all the new automobiles that were using them. Now, a hundred years later, it's become a heated political issue. Republicans campaigned on delaying an increase to the gas tax last year. That failed to gain traction in the Senate this year when Senate Democrats said that money was needed to finance transportation projects. Now, the governor is calling for a three month suspension of the gas tax.

Stephen Farnsworth at the University of Mary Washington says the gas tax is much more visceral than other kinds of taxes.

"Higher gas prices hurt people, people really notice it," he explains. "It is so much more visible a tax than what's withheld from your paycheck. As a result, politicians have to be acutely sensitive to gasoline prices."

Quentin Kidd, a political analyst at Christopher Newport University, says lawmakers need to balance the books. But they also need to balance the political considerations if they want to get reelected.

"Legislators are trying probably to think about the political implications of what they're doing, but in the face of so much uncertainty," Kidd says. "And in the face of what between now and the election is a lifetime where gas prices could be back down to $2.50 a gallon and nobody is thinking much about them."

Last week, House Republicans and Senate Democrats failed to come to an agreement on the budget – how to handle the gas tax and funding transportation projects was a key sticking point.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.