Lawyer drives gas-tax fight

A Salisbury man's campaign aims to void the increase that took effect Sunday

Staff WriterJanuary 5, 2006 

Bill Graham's crusade against the state gas tax has hit a nerve across North Carolina.

The 45-year-old Salisbury lawyer has spent about $200,000 out of his own pocket to finance a three-week radio advertising campaign calling on state officials to roll back an increase in the state gas tax that went into effect Sunday. He has hit the radio talk show circuit. And, on Wednesday, he submitted 22,000 names of people opposed to the gas-tax hike that he collected at his Web site.

"In just three weeks, we have mobilized a groundswell of opposition to the gas tax increase," Graham said Wednesday at a news conference at the Legislative Building.

Graham and others have applied enough political heat on the issue that House Speaker Jim Black and Senate leader Marc Basnight, both Democrats, have created a joint legislative committee to consider whether to roll back the 2.8-cent-per-gallon increase that went into effect at the beginning of the year. The committee will meet today.

Graham may turn out to be more than an anti-tax crusader. His name is increasingly being circulated in Republican circles as a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2008. And Graham -- while calling such talk premature -- does not discourage the speculation.

After all, Graham has the boyish good looks of former U.S. Sen. John Edwards. Like Edwards, Graham is the son of a textile-mill worker. Graham grew up in the Harnett County town of Erwin, where his father was a chemist in the local denim plant and his mother was a registered nurse.

Unlike Edwards, a Democrat, Graham is a Republican who once worked on the staff of former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms and has been an active fund-raiser for numerous GOP candidates, including U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr and U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes.

Graham's law practice now centers on representing injured workers in workers' compensation cases.

Graham, with the help of political consultant and former Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer, set up a group, called North Carolina Conservatives United, to mobilize support for capping the gas tax.

"When he believes in something, he steps up to the plate and figures out how to make a difference," said Margaret Kluttz, a former Salisbury mayor. "He and his wife have been very active in Salisbury. They are givers and not takers. They have proven themselves time and time again in this community in helping get hard things done."

The tax hike is the indirect result of Hurricane Katrina, which led to rapid increases at the gas pump. North Carolina has a flat tax on gasoline of 17.5 cents per gallon plus a variable rate of 7 percent of the average wholesale price and a 0.25-cent inspection fee. The variable portion is adjusted every six months based on changes in the wholesale prices. The variable rate increased 2.8 cents, bringing the tax to 29.9 cents Sunday.

A number of Republican legislators have pushed for a freeze on gas taxes. But Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat, has expressed skepticism about rolling back the gas tax.

Supporting Easley is NC Go, a coalition of 130 organizations representing chambers of commerce, highway contractors and such corporations as Wachovia, the Charlotte-based banking giant.

"If you are driving around town, there are maybe 20 cents' difference from gas station to gas station," said Larry Goode, a former state highway administrator and co-chairman of NC Go. "The gas tax is a small part of the price."

Goode said the increase would cost the average driver $15 per year. And he said the gas tax will likely come down in July, when it is once again adjusted for wholesale prices.

"If you take away the money from DOT, you could easily be paying more for maintenance and congestion you have to deal with," Goode said. "The potholes impact your vehicle."

But Graham said the increase has hit "a raw nerve."

"We have one of the highest gas taxes in the country," Graham said. "If wholesale prices go up, it [the gas tax] will go up again. I'm trying to ring the alarm bell to say: 'Is this where we want to go? Is this the vision of North Carolina we all want to embrace?' "

"The visceral reaction I get ... on talk shows -- they can't believe it. They are besides themselves that the governor and the legislature will not at least freeze what we have. Since Katrina, prices have gone up so much that people are really hurting."

Staff writer Rob Christensen can be reached at 829-4532 or robc@newsobserver.com.

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