Pa.’s governor candidates feud over how to reduce pain at the pump

There’s small distinctions between each candidate’s plan; though some activists want to see them be more creative

By: - April 10, 2022 7:35 am

Gas prices at a Mobil gas station in West Hollywood, Calif., on March 8, 2022 (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong/The Conversation).

Amid spiking gasoline prices, Pennsylvania’s near-national high gas tax has moved to the front of the ongoing gubernatorial campaign.

The details differ, but both Democrat Josh Shapiro, the only candidate on the ballot for his party, and a number of the leading GOP candidates all have offered plans to temporarily or permanently reduce the hit of elevated prices on motorists’ wallets. .

“Right now we have an opportunity to put money back in the pockets of Pennsylvanians who are struggling,” Shapiro said at a suburban Harrisburg press conference last month. “And I think we need to act right now.”

Pa. lawmaker proposes lowering state liquid fuels tax amid rising gas prices

As part of a broader tax cut plan targeted at middle class families, Shapiro, the state’s current attorney general, called for a $250 gas tax rebate to the owners of all 8 million cars registered in the Commonwealth

The benefit will max out at $1,000 for a household with four cars. The Shapiro campaign has estimated that the plan would cost $2 billion, which he would pay for with federal pandemic relief money.

The plan also called for eliminating a monthly tax on cellphone bills and expanding the state’s property tax and rental rebate.

“We’re gonna have a broad-base plan in our first budget, that includes a lot of other issues,” Shapiro added. “We just think these are three things that can be done right now to help offset the rising costs.”

Meanwhile, at least three Republican candidates — Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, former Delaware County Councilmember  Dave White, and former federal prosecutor Bill McSwain — have run ads in recent weeks citing higher gasoline prices.

McSwain in particular is focused on the issue, saying he will permanently cut the state’s gas tax, currently at 57.6 cents per gallon, in half. That levy is among the highest in the country.

“Gas tax is essentially a gimmick that has been used to fund all sorts of different things that should come out of the general fund,” McSwain said Thursday on KDKA-AM.

While most of the money is supposed to go to road and bridge construction, gas tax revenue has also been used to fund new classes of state troopers in recent years.

McSwain argued that slashing  “corporate giveaways” for horse racing, the film industry, and alternative energy could make up for any infrastructure spending shortfalls.

Corman, with his position in Harrisburg, has pushed an alternate plan to lower the gas tax by a third for the rest of 2022. 

The plan would use $500 million in federal stimulus money to fund State Police operations, and then have the Penn Department of Transportation issue $650 million in bonds to “ensure critical infrastructure projects remain funded during the period of the gas tax reduction for consumers.”

The bill is now in the Republican-controlled Senate Transportation Committee, and is awaiting a vote.

“Consumers should never have to choose between filling their tank and filling their grocery cart, but that is the reality created by the Biden administration’s embrace of the radical anti-energy production policies and world events,” Corman said  on a campaign website also promoting the plan for his gubernatorial run.

Shapiro has fired back that any plan to cut or reduce the gas tax is problematic. 

There’s no guarantee oil and gas executives would pass the savings onto consumers, Shapiro argued., Such a move would potentially violate federal guidance on using federal funds, benefit out-of-state as well as in-state motorists and threaten funding for state police.

“It makes no sense. It’s reckless,” he said. “But that’s their plan. Ours is sound.”

In a statement, Corman’s Senate spokesperson Jason Thompson fired back that at least for Corman’s plan, defunding the police won’t be a consequence.

“Peddling such blatant misinformation about Senator Corman’s plan is disappointing and beneath the dignity of an elected official,” Thompson said.

Gas prices — and the taxes levied pump — have historically been used as a political cudgel in both primary and general elections.

Pennsylvania last increased its gas taxes in 2013 under former GOP Gov. Tom Corbett.  Corman voted for it. 

Grassroots conservative anger at that hike, which paid for a $2.3 billion transportation funding package, helped drive then-House Speaker Sam Smith into office. Other insurgents, including a successful GOP primary in 2018, have jumped on the state’s gas tax as well.

For his part, outgoing Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has already said he’d like to eliminate the gas tax as a way of funding infrastructure. In a 2021 release, he cited the growing gapping between revenues, which have sagged as people buy more efficient vehicles, and the costs of maintaining roads and bridges.

He convened a commission to “examine reliable, sustainable revenue solutions to address both near-term and long-term funding needs.”

The debate over tolling Pennsylvania bridges, explained 

His administration is already moving forward with a plan to replace and toll a number of highway bridges, and has kicked the tires on such measures as congestion pricing during rush hours in and out of cities.

But the heavy focus on gas prices and drivers has also led some urbanists to push for gubernatorial candidates to get more creative.

Jon Geeting, a Philadelphia political activist focused on transportation issues, told the Capital-Star that with transportation as the state’s leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, “it would be a major mistake to try and provide gas tax relief specifically to people, and not look at a wider view of the electorate.”

Many people, Geeting noted, may walk, bike, or take transit to work, and will see no benefit from a driver-focused policy effort.

To reduce emissions and make sure people aren’t “captive to gas prices,” Geeting called for gubernatorial candidates to invest in more diverse transportation infrastructure, from bike lanes to public transit.

“We need to future proof against high gas prices,” Geeting said. “That is a choice that the state government has to make more than any other layer of government.”

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.