How bad is your gas pain?

Staff WriterJanuary 3, 2006 

Does it hurt?

You may have noticed that you're paying almost three pennies more in taxes for every gallon of gas. North Carolina's inflation-adjusted tax rose Sunday to 29.9 cents -- on top of the federal tax, unchanged at 18.4 cents.

Some North Carolinians are really mad about the increase. They want to freeze the state gas tax or even roll it back down a few clicks. They want to punish whichever political party is responsible.

But, given the dizzy swings in pump prices this past year, it's hard to say just how much we feel the latest tax increase of 2.8 cents a gallon. And it's hard to agree on how much of our problems rise and fall with this tax.

It seems impossible to do anything about the really big forces that drive gas prices. China's new demand for energy is part of the price we're pumping, and so are the higher profit margins enjoyed lately by the oil companies.

Prices spiked above $3 in September after Hurricane Katrina pinched our supply lines. They have fallen by about $1 since then.

We can't sue Katrina for that $1, and we can't really fault China for its economic growth. A well-aimed pie-in-the-face might show the global petro barons how mad we are, but it wouldn't bring back the glorious days of early 2005, when gas cost just $2.

But our elected legislators can do something about that 2.8 cents. So a bipartisan legislative study group will get together Thursday to talk about the state gas tax.

House and Senate leaders announced the study last week. They said it would address energy issues, including the gas tax and home heating bills.

One question for legislators and the experts they consult is: How much does that 2.8 cents hurt?

Department of Transportation chiefs and political leaders say North Carolina would be hurt without it. They say the DOT needs the extra money, about $74 million, it will receive from gas tax revenues through June 30. (The tax rate is predicted to fall July 1 from 29.9 to about 28.6 cents; it is pegged to wholesale prices that have dropped since September.)

What's that $74 million worth to you?

If your car gets 20 miles per gallon and you drive 15,000 miles every 12 months, you'll buy 375 gallons over the next six months. You'll pay $10.50 more in taxes than you would have paid at the December tax rate of 27.1 cents.

Just as the state tax hike is a relatively small part of our driving expenses, it is also a minor part of the state's transportation problems.

The biggest bite from our road-building and pothole-patching budget comes when the legislature robs the Highway Trust Fund for money -- lately more than $250 million a year -- to pay for non-transportation needs. Since 1990, this practice has drained more than $3 billion from the state transportation budget.

There have been many calls for an end to this annual raiding party, and the new group getting together Thursday may well say the same. It will be harder to figure out how to raise taxes or cut spending elsewhere -- to balance the state's budget for those non-transportation needs.

North Carolina is among more than a dozen states where gas taxes rise and fall with inflation. A few of them have decided this winter to stop the automatic increases.

What will our legislators do, in this election year, about this tax hike? Stay tuned.

Boon for old autos

Worried about whether your old clunker could pass another tailpipe pollution inspection? You can breathe easy now, while the rest of us gasp for clean air.

As of Sunday, North Carolina no longer requires emissions tests for vehicles from 1995 and earlier model years, in nine urban counties: Wake, Durham, Orange, Guilford, Forsyth, Mecklenburg, Union, Cabarrus and Gaston.

The change involves the pollution test only. The older vehicles still must get annual safety checks.

In the early 1990s, these nine counties became the first in the state to add emissions tests (for gasoline, not diesel vehicles) to the annual car safety inspection. As of Sunday, 39 other counties have joined the emissions test list.

For cars made since 1996, the state checks the onboard diagnostic computer to see whether the car's pollution controls are working properly. Environmental regulators say that's more effective than the old-fashioned, pre-computer test, which measured a few pollutants actually coming out of the tailpipe.

The tailpipe test, used for pre-1996 cars, did not check nitrogen oxides, the main ingredient of ozone pollution. Rather than switch to much more expensive measures for testing old cars, the state decided to drop the tailpipe test altogether.

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