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Off and On: Higher gas prices could mean more taxes

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By Ralph Damiani

State lawmakers are being warned that rising gasoline prices could aggravate financial problems confronting the state Department of Transportation and New Mexico’s highway system.

The agency expects that as motorists cut back on their travel because of high gasoline prices, less money will flow to the state from New Mexico’s fuels taxes. Less fuel sold means less revenue to the state, based on per-gallon sold.

And that is already happening.

Taxes on fuels provide more than half of the revenue for the state road fund that pays for operations of the Transportation Department, which maintains and builds highways.

New Mexico already faces a transportation financing shortfall of a half-billion dollars and the department has put 29 state road construction projects on hold until more money is found to pay for them.

And guess where that extra money will come from?

Top department officials outlined other financial woes to the Legislative Finance Committee, including an $80 million gap in funding for a transportation package enacted last year for local government and tribal projects.

While the high oil prices help the state’s general fund with royalty payments, the high fuel prices are driving down consumption – and state highway revenue.

Deputy Transportation Secretary Robert Ortiz told the Associated Press the agency estimates it needs an additional $83 million a year to better maintain highways and $81 million annually for work on bridges.

However, he said the agency expects gas tax revenues to continue to drop in the coming months because of reduced sales.

Of course you know what this will mean? You got it: some higher taxes or new fees to add new burdens to an already burdened people.

A study group has suggested a number of proposals to resolve the financial squeeze facing the department. The funding options include raising motor vehicle registration fees and increasing the state’s gross receipts tax rate, with the money earmarked for transportation.

Are you surprised?

PACs among top donors to campaigns

Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who represents the 3rd Congressional District of northern New Mexico, was the leading fundraiser in the Senate race during the first three months of the year, even though he is unopposed in the primary.

According to the Associated Press, he collected almost $1.3 million in contributions, while his Republican rivals – who are battling it out in the primary – raised less than half of what he did.

Wilson received about $515,000 and Pearce netted about $467,000 in contributions.

Indian tribes with gambling operations and labor union political committees were leading sources of campaign money for Udall.

Political action committees affiliated with organized labor provided at least $82,500 to Udall’s campaign from January through March, according to a campaign finance report filed with the Federal Election Commission. Among the largest contributors were PACs of the Teamsters and United Auto Workers unions, which each gave $10,000.

More than a dozen Indian tribes from across the country donated $29,300 to Udall. Among them were the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in California, $4,300, and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, $4,000.

Arts and entertainment celebrities also were among Udall’s financial supporters.

Film director and writer Nora Ephron gave $1,000. Bestselling author Stuart Woods donated $1,000 and science writer and author James Gleick contributed $1,000.

Udall’s campaign received $39,900 from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He also received contributions from political committees affiliated with several Democratic U.S. senators, including $10,000 from the PACs of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and $7,500 from New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez’s PAC.

Among Wilson’s top contributors were PACs of Republicans in the U.S. Senate. She received $5,000 each from PACs affiliated with sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa, Christopher Bond of Missouri and Orrin Hatch of Utah, and $2,500 from Indiana Sen. Dick Lujar’s PAC.

Wilson received $4,000 from executives of an Ohio-based real estate development company, Forest City Enterprises, which is involved in Mesa Del Sol, a residential and commercial development near the Albuquerque International Sunport.

Pojoaque Pueblo contributed $2,300 to Wilson, who represents the Albuquerque-area 1st Congressional District.

Pearce received about $10,000 from oil and gas industry PACs, including $5,000 from Chesapeake Energy’s PAC. The Oklahoma-based company is an independent producer of natural gas. Members of New Mexico’s Yates family, which operates oil and gas companies, gave at least $11,700 to Pearce. Included was $2,300 from Frank Yates Jr. of Artesia, president of Yates Petroleum.

Pearce received $5,000 from the leadership PAC of U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.

Pojoaque also contributed $2,300 to Pearce and Laguna Pueblo, which operates a casino, gave $1,000.

As they say, money talks.