While Warnock’s gas tax holiday stalls in D.C., Georgia passes state law

Georgia legislators approved a suspension of the state's 29.1 cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline. But a proposal by Georgia U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock to do the same with the federal tax of 18.4 cents per gallon has gone nowhere. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

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Georgia legislators approved a suspension of the state's 29.1 cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline. But a proposal by Georgia U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock to do the same with the federal tax of 18.4 cents per gallon has gone nowhere. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Gas prices across Georgia are falling, at least in part because of a temporary suspension of the state gas tax pushed by Republican leaders.

But a similar effort in Washington championed by Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, has gone nowhere.

Republicans in Congress say a federal gas tax holiday would be all for show and not solve the issues behind the high prices for petroleum.

Wyoming U.S. Sen. John Barrasso called the federal proposal a “Band-Aid over a bullet hole” that would marginally reduce gas prices, and only until after the November election when Warnock and three others backing the legislation are up for reelection.

Warnock says his bill is good policy and one that is popular among voters. He credits his proposal, which he debuted in early February, with starting the conversation that led Georgia’s state lawmakers to introduce their own tax holiday that became law earlier this month.

“I hadn’t heard any conversation about a gas tax suspension in Georgia until I started talking about it and (introduced) my bill,” Warnock said. “So I’m grateful that they are taking note and doing this at the state level.”

He also wants state leaders to give the federal government credit for passing legislation throughout the coronavirus pandemic that provided payments to states and families that helped keep the economy afloat, making new tax cuts possible.

Jared Walczak, vice president of state projects at the Tax Foundation, a right-leaning think tank based in Washington, said Warnock is correct in linking the state gas tax holiday to decisions made in Washington.

“Most states are currently posting substantial revenue surpluses,” he said. “This is partly because of specific pandemic-era policies and activities, especially additional federal spending that has shown up as higher personal income and higher consumption.”

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed Georgia’s tax measure into law on March 18, suspending collection of the 29.1 cents-a-gallon state gas tax through the end of May.

A record-high average price of $4.29 a gallon was recorded for Georgia on March 11, according to AAA. As of Friday, the average price in the state was down to $3.98. The cost of gas also depends on various market forces that change by day.

Warnock’s legislation to suspend the federal gas tax could reduce prices an additional 18.4 cents a gallon. It has the backing of five other Democratic senators from swing states.

“I’ve always been supportive of lower taxes, but this is just a political stunt because he knows how hard it is for him to be reelected,” Florida U.S. Sen. Rick Scott said of Warnock.

Scott wouldn’t say whether the gas tax suspensions in states such as Georgia were also stunts. Kemp, who is seeking a second term in office, faces former U.S. Sen. David Perdue in the May Republican primary and, if he wins, Democrat Stacey Abrams in November.

“They can make their own decisions about their own budget,” Scott said. “But I can tell you, there’s four people worried about their reelection that are doing it up here.”

It’s not just partisan disagreement stopping Warnock’s bill from advancing in Washington.

Even some Democrats are concerned about forgoing about $2 billion a month in federal tax revenue used for road construction and repair. Warnock’s proposal would require the Department of the Treasury to transfer money to keep the Highway Trust Fund whole, but that could add to the national debt.

There are also competing proposals that lawmakers say are better ways to address pain at the pump. Republicans want to expand U.S. oil production by making it easier to gain new drilling permits, and they want to resume construction of the Keystone XL pipeline extension. They are wary of climate change initiatives that could limit fossil fuel usage or production.

Democrats have proposed rebates for low-income drivers, taxing oil companies on their profits and new rules requiring companies to use existing oil drilling permits or lose them.

However, voters largely back a temporary halt to gas taxes at both the state and federal levels. A federal gas holiday had the support of 73% of voters polled by Politico and Morning Consult from March 18-21. That same poll found that 72% of voters supported state gas tax holidays.

Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho and several other GOP lawmakers criticized Democrats this week for not doing enough to lower gas prices that have risen steadily this year, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

He is also among those who believe Warnock’s legislation is the wrong idea, calling it a “gimmick.” And he said he would say the same thing to state lawmakers in Georgia.

“The main thing is, it’s not a solution to what caused that price,” Crapo said.

But Warnock said he is listening to the motorists who want gas prices to go down.

“Tell that to the consumer,” he said. “The people who are at the pump, I don’t think they’re saying that. Politicians are saying that.”

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