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Democratic Leaders in West Virginia Legislature Continue To Push for Gas Tax Freeze

CHARLESTON – Democratic leaders in the West Virginia Legislature say they won’t stop pushing for a 30-day freeze of the state gasoline tax until either Gov. Jim Justice uses his emergency powers or adds a bill to a special session call.

Several Democratic lawmakers in the Senate and House of Delegates held a virtual press conference Wednesday to continue to push their idea of suspending West Virginia’s 35.7 cent gasoline tax and use surplus tax dollars to make up for the lost tax revenue.

“We’re here today because we’re not giving up on this,” said Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier. “We are flexible as to how that relief is provided, but we are not flexible on providing that relief. It needs to be done as soon as possible.”

“Let’s just come together, let’s talk about it, and let’s figure it out,” said House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha. “Other states are considering it. It’s an option and we just need to do something. Doing nothing is not an option.”

The Senate and House Democratic caucus announced options for providing relief to motorists. One way would be a 30-day freeze of the gasoline tax either by executive order by Justice under his state of emergency authority West Virginia has remained under for more than two years or through a special session. The other option would be through a $100 rebate for residents who own motor vehicles in the state.

“Let’s do a gas rebate. Anyone who files a tax form will get some type of rebate, similar to a stimulus check, for the costs that are expected to be expended on gas for a month to bring relief to West Virginians,” said Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha. “The only party that’s willing to work toward that goal is the Democratic Party. We don’t care who takes credit for it, but it needs to get done and it needs to get done immediately.”

Justice said Tuesday that he would call a special session to coincide with legislative interim meetings taking place Sunday, April 24, through Tuesday, April 26, to fix issues with an economic development bill he vetoed and wants to see fixed and re-passed. An official proclamation calling the special session likely won’t be issued for weeks, but only items placed on the special session proclamation can be considered by the Legislature.

Speaking Tuesday, Justice said he was not opposed to considering legislation to provide gasoline tax relief if presented with options by lawmakers. Justice has called efforts by Democratic lawmakers to call for a gas tax freeze “grandstanding.”

“We’d love to be able to come up with some mechanism to give people some level of relief,” Justice said. “At the end of the day, it’s going to take the Legislature coming together to be able to accomplish this … if the Legislature comes to me and says this is what we want to do, I’ll be all in.”

Democratic lawmakers sent Justice a letter March 17 calling for the freeze. Justice said he has heard nothing directly from Democratic leaders beyond the letter, though Skaff said he reached out to Justice Chief of Staff Brian Abraham for a meeting with the governor and his staff, including sending a text during Wednesday’s briefing.

“I’ve asked him to have a meeting,” Skaff said. “We can all come together. It doesn’t have to be partisan. We just want to do something.”

Some believe waiting for a special session for the end of April is too long. House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, said the state of emergency that West Virginia remains under gives Justice the authority to freeze the gasoline tax by executive order, using funds from the Governor’s Civil Contingency Fund to cover the loss in tax revenue.

“The whole point of a state of emergency is for the governor to protect the public good,” Fluharty said. “I would argue that giving instant relief to people at the gas pump under the current crisis we’re under is protecting the public good. If he’s unwilling to do that, which we know that he can, the Democrats are stepping up and trying to make it happen for the people of West Virginia.”

Shortly after the Democrats called for the gasoline tax freeze, Republican legislative leadership issued a joint statement raising concerns that freezing the tax, even if funds are backfilled with surplus tax revenue, could cause issues with the state road bonds. Lindsay said Democratic leaders have looked to other states with freezes, Georgia, Connecticut and Maryland, and found road bond covenants often allow for a freeze.

“The road bond covenants that we have in West Virginia are substantially similar,” Lindsay said. “What we would suggest is we would take the $35 million that we anticipate a month’s worth of the state gas tax would cost and put it in the debt service fund and thereby take care of our roads, take care of our expectations, and take care of our bond.”

According to AAA, the average price of gas in West Virginia as of Wednesday was $4.073, down from $4.076 Tuesday and down from $4.088 last week.

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