Supporters, opponents of fuel tax increase kick off ad campaigns

Saturday, August 20th 2005, 7:01 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Oklahoma's air waves will soon crackle with the pitch of a political campaign as supporters and opponents of a proposed increase in fuel taxes launch an advertising blitz they hope will sway voters to their opposing points of view.

Supporters, including Oklahomans for Safe Roads and Bridges, a coalition of citizen and business groups, have raised more than $1 million to promote a plan to raise Oklahoma's 17 cent-per-gallon gasoline tax and 14 cent-per-gallon diesel tax to 22 cents each for road and bridge repairs.

"The primary focus is on safety," said Neal McCaleb, president of the coalition and former state transportation secretary. The Road Information Program, a national transportation research group, ranks the state's bridges as the worst in the nation because 33 percent are structurally deficient.

"I don't think that's a hard sell," McCaleb said.

Meanwhile, a coalition of opponents including the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, the Oklahoma Trucking Association and Taxpayers United, an anti-tax group, will fight the measure with ads that claim a fuel price hike is unnecessary and will damage the state's economy.

"We don't disagree that roads and bridges in Oklahoma are bad," said state Rep. Thad Balkman, R-Norman, spokesman for Taxpayers United. But the problems can be fixed with existing state and federal tax dollars, Balkman said.

The Legislature this year passed a plan to eventually increase road and bridge maintenance funding by $170 million a year without raising taxes. A federal transportation bill that is awaiting President Bush's signature increases federal funding for state transportation needs by more than $130 million a year over four years.

"We don't need a tax increase to address these problems. We've already got other ways to accomplish what they're trying to accomplish," Balkman said.

Both sides plan to begin airing television and radio ads on Monday -- barely three weeks before a statewide Sept. 13 election on State Question 723. If passed, the fuel tax increase will raise an estimated $150 million a year when it is fully in effect in four years.

As the election draws near, opposition groups are buoyed by the skyrocketing cost of gasoline and diesel fuel they say is the biggest asset in their attempts to defeat the tax. The average cost of self-serve regular gasoline was more than $2.50 a gallon last week.

"The best proponent we've got is the price of fuel," said Dan Case, executive director of the trucking group that has raised more than $100,000 to defeat SQ 723. "It's getting too high even for the people who support this."

At the same time, headlines and photographs in newspapers across the state are highlighting the dangers of Oklahoma's crumbling highways and bridges.

Last week, concrete fell from the westbound lanes of an Interstate-244 bridge in Tulsa, creating a 3-by-3-foot hole in the roadway. State transportation officials said the state does not have the money to replace the bridge, which was built in 1967.

Last year, a Texas woman, Yvonna Osborn, was killed when falling concrete from a bridge across Interstate 35 south of Oklahoma City smashed through her windshield.

In April, part of a 1940s-era bridge over the Salt Fork of the Red River in Jackson County collapsed under the weight of a garbage truck. No one was injured.

"The opposition has characterized us as Chicken Littles, running around saying the bridges are falling. In fact they are," McCaleb said.

Radio ads sponsored by McCaleb's group highlight the recurring problems.

"Every eight days," the ad states, "14 Oklahomans die, in part because of Oklahoma's crumbling bridges and bad roads. One of them will be a child."

The ad blames the problems on a "power-hungry Legislature" that has ignored the problem "while they squandered millions of our tax dollars.

"Now, 1,100 of our bridges are in critical need of repair. Many are nearly 100 years old, and made of wood. Chunks of concrete fall off some and a few are collapsing, endangering the lives of drivers who cross them every day."

Much of the money donated to the fuel tax campaign as come from contractors, trade associations and other groups involved in road and bridge building, according to state campaign finance records.

Case said the group's ads are an attempt to frighten voters into supporting the tax.

"They're very detrimental to our industry," he said.

Opponents will counter with ads that highlight the cost of a fuel tax increase to farmers, truckers and rural residents, who must drive further distances to receive basic services.

"The proposed fuel tax increase is a consumption tax that hits rural Oklahomans directly in their wallets," states one radio ad sponsored by the Farm Bureau.

"No, we don't need to further burden our citizens with increased fuel taxes."

Jeremy Rich, director of public policy for the Farm Bureau, said rural Oklahomans are struggling to pay their fuel bills.

"Fuel is the number one item that is killing them," Rich said. "To tax that item right now just doesn't make any sense."

Case said Oklahoma truckers already pay 38.4 cents a gallon of diesel fuel in federal and state taxes. Nationally, truckers account for 10 percent of the traffic but pay 40 percent of the fuel taxes, he said.

"We just feel like we want to do it without new taxes," said Case.

McCaleb said the cost of a fuel tax increase will be minuscule for average Oklahomans, amounting to $2.50 more a month for a driver who travels an average of 12,000 miles a year.

"That's the price of a cheap hamburger," McCaleb said.