Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson, who represents one of the most petroleum-addicted places on earth, has filed his second bill in less than a year to increase the federal gasoline tax.
Beilenson's bill last March to raise the gas tax has gone nowhere in Congress but the gas-tax issue has emerged in his reelection campaign. Moreover, House Democratic leaders have indicated that they will not promote any tax increase, leaving that up to the Republican-controlled Senate and President Reagan.
Nonetheless, Beilenson earlier this month introduced a new gas-tax bill, saying it could slash billions of dollars from the federal budget deficit by taking advantage of the plunge in world oil prices.
Beilenson, a five-term Democrat who represents portions of the Westside and the San Fernando Valley, acknowledged at a recent meeting with reporters in Sherman Oaks that the new bill faces a tough ride. But he said that it is "a less onerous and more palatable tax than any others one can dream up" and that this year's version should have wider appeal than last year's offering.
Tax at Variable Rate
The new measure, which has attracted five co-sponsors, would boost the gas tax at a variable rate so that motorists theoretically would spend no more at the pumps than they did before oil prices began tumbling a few weeks ago.
Beilenson has long supported higher gasoline taxes as a means of stimulating energy conservation, reducing the budget deficit and cutting the sizable fraction of the trade deficit for which oil imports are responsible. Still, a Beilenson aide conceded, "people can't believe . . . that a congressman from Los Angeles would be out front on a gasoline tax proposal."
Under terms of the bill, every 50-cent decline in the price of a barrel of oil below the $27 price of Jan. 1 would trigger a gas-tax increase of 1.2 cents per gallon. A barrel of oil contains 42 gallons, so a 50-cent drop in the cost of a barrel is a decline of 1.2 cents per gallon.
Tied to Price Fluctuations
The tax rate would be raised or lowered every three months, depending on oil price fluctuations, and the increase would disappear if the price returned to $27.
If the price were to stabilize at $17 a barrel, the tax would raise about $24 billion a year "without costing drivers any more than they are paying for gas right now," Beilenson said.
"A gasoline tax which goes up only as the price of oil goes down is the most painless way available to reduce the federal budget deficit," he said.
George Woolverton, a lawyer from Tarzana seeking the Republican congressional nomination to oppose Beilenson, said the new bill is objectionable but "much more creative" than last year's proposal, which Woolverton cited as evidence that Beilenson ought to be replaced.
The earlier bill would raise the gas tax by a dime per gallon for five straight years--a total of 50 cents. The measure has languished in the House Ways and Means Committee, whose members have shown no interest in it.
Woolverton said he does not favor the new proposal, arguing that savings at the gas pump should be allowed to circulate through the economy and not be taxed away.
Beilenson said the variable gas tax has little chance because of President Reagan's longstanding opposition to any tax increase. But the long odds may have decreased slightly two weeks ago with Reagan's announcement that he might accept a tax on oil imports that is being pushed by some members of the Senate.
However, it is uncertain if the Beilenson bill could emerge as a strong alternative to an oil import fee, which Beilenson said he opposes.
The oil import tax has strong support from some lawmakers representing oil-producing states because it would boost the competitive position of domestic oil producers. The Senate subcommittee on energy and agricultural taxation will hold two days of hearings later this month on a pair of oil import tax bills.
Beilenson has said an oil import fee would adversely affect industries that use large amounts of petroleum and would bring "inexcusable windfall profits" to domestic producers who, he said, would be able to raise their prices to match the higher price of imports.