World and Nation

State Legislatures Face Increasing Pressure Over High Fuel Taxes

Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida has been fighting to cut 10 cents from the state’s gasoline tax for two weeks in July. Lawmakers in Missouri, New York and Texas have also proposed a summer break from state gas taxes, while candidates for governor in Indiana and North Carolina are sparring over relief ideas of their own.

If experience with such gas tax “holidays” is any guide, drivers would save less than politicians suggest. But that is not necessarily the point.

“It’s about trying to serve the people and trying to understand and have caring, compassionate hearts for what they’re dealing with at the kitchen table,” said Crist, a Republican.

He added, “I’m supposed to respond to the people and try to make them happy.”

Rising frustration with gas prices has led two presidential candidates, Sens. John McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton, to promote proposals to suspend the federal gas tax from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

But state gas taxes, which run as high as 45.5 cents a gallon, often add far more to the price of gas than the 18.4-cent federal excise tax and are the primary cause of price disparities across state lines. So lawmakers and candidates at the state level have been getting into the act.

The collective response speaks not just to the harsh reality of skyrocketing gas prices. It also highlights the political potency of anything that affects America’s special bond with cars. Gasoline is a product that no one can ignore — and one that inspires intense emotion.

“It clearly evokes a visceral response because we’re the only industry that has our prices in 2-foot-high letters on the street corner,” said John Felmy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute. “We’ve seen other things go up in prices, like milk, but if you ask 10 people on the street what’s the price of milk they may not know. All of them will know the price of gas.”