WASHINGTON -- For the first time in his campaign, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Michael Baumgartner is proposing to raise a specific tax: a penny increase in the 18.4-cents-a-gallon federal gas tax.
But Baumgartner, a freshman state senator from Spokane who is running against Democratic incumbent Maria Cantwell, wouldn't use the money to shore up the chronically underfunded Highway Trust Fund, which uses taxes at the pumps to pay for roads and bridges. Instead, he would spend the estimated $2 billion a year in additional revenue to provide medical care for veterans.
The tax plan is the second time recently that Baumgartner has staked out a position on high-profile issues ahead of his first debate with Cantwell in Seattle, which will be televised Friday. On Wednesday, he announced his support for Initiative 502 to legalize retail sales of small amounts of marijuana to adults.
Cantwell opposes legalizing recreational use of pot, though she said she would abide by Washington voters' decision in November.
Baumgartner has tried to paint Cantwell as a tax-and-spend liberal. He called his proposed gas tax "a relatively small" revenue source that would help repay the nation's debt to its veterans. He said the tax would serve as a "visible reminder" of the cost of war as well as help reduce the reasons that draw the U.S. military to the Middle East, namely oil.
Baumgartner said the penny increase in the gas tax would be temporary and would expire once the number of U.S. troops in global "conflict zones" dropped below 1,000. The tax would be reactivated once the number climbed above 1,000.
Some 68,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan.
In an interview, Baumgartner would not say whether he supports raising gas taxes beyond the earmarked penny.
"Right now, we're charging ourselves a very high cost for infrastructure because of high labor and environmental regulations," he said, adding that discussion should come before raising gas taxes.
The federal gas tax and the 24.4-cents-a-gallon surcharge on diesel are the main source for money for the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for highways, bridges, mass transit and underground gas-storage tanks. The tax rates have not gone up since 1993, even though the trust fund is shrinking because Americans are driving fewer miles and cars are more fuel-efficient.
Consequently, Congress for years has had to supplement the fund with money from other revenue sources. For instance, the short-term transportation bill President Obama signed this summer would pump $21.2 billion into the fund by raising pension-insurance premiums on employers and from other sources. It also keeps the current tax rates on gas and diesel unchanged for two more years.
Americans pay some of the world's lowest gas-tax rates, and budget experts say raising the tax is a simple fix to cover the trust fund's shortfall. But Democrats and Republicans have shown no appetite to do it.
Kelly Steele, Cantwell's campaign spokesman, would not say whether she believes the trust fund ought be bolstered with higher gas taxes. Cantwell serves on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Deborah Gordon, senior associate with the energy and climate program for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Baumgartner's idea is bad policy at a time when the gas tax is too low to cover the wear and tear on the roads.
"I don't think it is realistic to further earmark a fund that itself is going broke," Gordon said. "The Baumgartner proposal would set a bad precedent, especially at a time when Congress cannot raise gas taxes to pay for American infrastructure."