Dixie Highway traffic

Dixie Highway traffic in Louisville 

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – For the second straight year, a bill to raise Kentucky’s gas tax has died in the state legislature.

House Bill 517 stalled in a House committee and wasn’t added to conference committees of House and Senate negotiators who hashed out tax and spending measures this week.

House Speaker David Osborne said Thursday that he was willing to move an infrastructure bill forward only with bipartisan backing. The gas tax plan had “significant support” among the House’s majority Republicans, he said, but Democrats weren’t in favor.

“While we have enough votes in our caucus to pass it on our own, we’re not going to,” Osborne said. “Democrats need roads too.”

But one of the bipartisan bill’s co-sponsors, Democratic Rep. Russ Meyer of Nicholasville, countered Friday morning that the measure had “plenty of support” among Democrats and said he believed it didn’t advance in the House because it was likely to fail in the Senate.

“The reality is pointing a finger at a Democrat or a Republican is the wrong thing to do,” Meyer said. “We need to do this for all of Kentucky.”

Meanwhile, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin told elected local officials last week that the gas tax proposal didn’t go far enough and suggested it doesn’t generate enough revenue.

“We need the money,” the governor said during the Kentucky Magistrates and Commissioners Association’s spring convention in Louisville, responding to a question about the bill. “But it needs to be something more comprehensive.”

Kentucky’s road fund is taking in less revenue than in past years – partially a result of more fuel-efficient vehicles and gas tax collections that are tied to wholesale prices. Transportation officials say more money is needed to continue to build and maintain roads and repair aging ones.

The state’s plight will worsen once federal toll credits that have served as local matching funds expire in the next year. At that point, Kentucky would have to use state dollars as its federal match.

The House bill would have added a 10-cent-per-gallon gas tax and raised other fees on license plate renewals and electric vehicles, among a series of new costs for drivers. It would have generated nearly $500 million a year in additional revenue, according to estimates.  

Kentucky Transportation Secretary Greg Thomas told lawmakers during a hearing on the bill March 5 that more money is needed for transportation, but “I would go farther in terms of where do we go with this investment in our infrastructure.”

In a recording of remarks at the magistrates’ meeting, Bevin said the bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Sal Santoro, R-Florence, “is bold. He’s willing to do something that nobody likes.”

Bevin also appeared to echo Thomas’ position and said any solution must have the support of both parties.

“Why beat ourselves up, go through all the chest pounding, sackcloth-and-ashes grief and angry letters to the editor and all this other stuff for 30 cents when you really need a dollar?” Bevin said. “We’re going to have to suck it up in Kentucky – all of us – and this is going to have to be bipartisan.”

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Greater Louisville Inc., and the statewide Kentuckians for Better Transportation backed an increase in the gas tax. The Kentucky chapter of the conservative Americans for Prosperity opposed it, arguing that lawmakers ought to better evaluate how existing tax dollars are spent.

Senate President Robert Stivers declined to comment on the gas-tax bill Thursday but said any approach to raising more money for transportation needs to be “holistic,” especially in light of electric and hybrid vehicles that don’t use gasoline but still travel the state’s roads.

“You’re not going to be able to exclusively rely on gasoline tax,” he said. “You’re going to have to start something else, because those cars don’t use gasoline but still have that same impact.”

Some states have studied charging a fee on the total number of miles a vehicle travels. Two Kentucky House members introduced a resolution creating the Mileage-Based Transportation Funding Task Force, but it died in a committee.

Reach reporter Marcus Green at 502-585-0825, mgreen@wdrb.com, on Twitter or on Facebook. Copyright 2019 WDRB Media. All rights reserved.

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Marcus Green joined WDRB News in 2013 after 12 years as a staff writer at the Louisville Courier-Journal. He reports on transportation, development and local and state government.