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Fighting city gas taxes.

Byline: The Register-Guard

The failure of gasoline dealers' effort to roll back the city of Eugene's gas tax through a public vote resulted in a victory for no one. The dealers collected more than 10,000 petition signatures, enough to prove that the city's gas tax increase is widely unpopular. Yet so many of the signatures were invalid that the referendum fell short of the 6,365 required, leaving the dealers to face the prospect of raising their prices on Aug. 1. Both the city and the dealers can get what they need only through state action.

The Eugene City Council voted in May to add 3 cents per gallon to the municipal tax on gasoline and diesel fuel, bringing the city's tax to a total of 8 cents per gallon, the highest in the state. The gasoline dealers sought to repeal the 3-cent increase as well as a 2-cent increase approved earlier, reducing Eugene's tax to the same 3-cent-per-gallon level collected in Springfield.

Despite its failure, the rollback obviously had broad appeal. Collecting 10,000 signatures is not an easy task, and the gasoline dealers gathered that many in a relatively brief period. All those who signed the petitions can be presumed to agree that 8 cents per gallon is excessive. The city of Eugene cannot read the failure of the referendum campaign as evidence of public support for the gas tax, or indifference toward its rate.

The unusually high ratio of invalid signatures, meanwhile, undercuts one of the gasoline dealers' primary objections to Eugene's tax. The dealers warn that a high municipal gas tax would cause their customers to buy fuel at stations outside the city. Yet the invalid signatures came from people who are not registered voters in Eugene, a group that must include many non-city residents. The 3-cent increase was put on hold by the petition effort, but not everyone knew that - and even before the latest increase, Eugene already had the highest city gas tax in the area. The petitions were passed primarily at gas stations, and though customers grumbled about the city tax, they paid it anyway rather than leaving the city to fill their tanks.

The Oregon Petroleum Association is contemplating a legal challenge to Eugene's method of setting the signature threshold. To qualify for the ballot, referendum petitions must contain the valid signatures of 10 percent of the number of voters who cast ballots in the most recent mayoral race. That's where the 6,365 number comes from. The association argues that write-in votes shouldn't be counted, which would result in a lower threshold. But a write-in vote is as good as any other - if enough voters wrote in Ernie Kent's name, he'd be mayor. A lawsuit attempting to exclude write-in votes from the total seems unlikely to prevail.

A more productive course would be to seek a statewide solution to the problem Eugene is attempting to address with its local gas tax. Cities and counties across Oregon have enacted local taxes because the amounts they obtain from their share of the state gas tax are inadequate to pay for street maintenance. Local legislators confirm that the Oregon Petroleum Association helped lobby the Legislature to approve an increase in the state gas tax, part of which would be shared with local governments, to no avail. The Legislature left the state gas tax at 24 cents per gallon, unchanged since 1993.

Such inaction forces local governments - not just in Eugene, but across Oregon - to protect their own street networks. The price differentials that Eugene gasoline dealers fear will hurt their business will become sharper and more widespread. A patchwork of gas tax rates is already emerging, and eventually it will produce a state transportation system of uneven quality.

An adequate state gas tax or other funding mechanism would allow city and county officials to back away from local gas taxes, resulting in both uniform levels of taxation and consistent levels of street repair throughout Oregon. That should be the gasoline dealers' goal: not to beat back Eugene's gas tax increases, but to relieve the pressure that led the council to enact them.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Local increases should spur state action
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jul 15, 2007
Next Article:Change near the top.

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