THE ULTIMATE ELECTION-YEAR SHAM: GAS-TAX REPEAL

THE ULTIMATE ELECTION-YEAR SHAM: GAS-TAX REPEAL

Of all the cynical gimmicks that politicians can generate during an election year, the current proposal before Congress to repeal the 4.3-cent federal gasoline tax takes the cake.

Maybe those words are surprising coming from someone who represents millions of workers in the transportation industry. After all, when gas prices go up, many of our members take a direct hit in the wallet. And many of their employers suffer, which can lead to layoffs and make it harder to negotiate good contracts.But repealing the gas tax won't save our members even a fraction of a penny. All it will do is line the pockets of a few and take the heat off oil-exporting countries like Iran and Iraq - while slashing America's investment in desperately needed road construction and repair, mass transit, safety and other programs that make our economy hum. Even worse, it will cost hundreds of thousands of jobs.

That's some price to pay to fulfill the election-year ambitions of certain politicians and to help them assuage their voters back home who might think Congress is actually looking out for working people.

Here's why the repeal won't work.

Gasoline prices are high because of the simple rules of supply and demand. The OPEC cartel has conspired to limit production. But our need for gasoline hasn't lessened. So prices rise.

As long as demand outstrips supply, those at the head of the food chain will pocket the 4.3-cent gas-tax repeal, not pass it through to consumers. Why? Because they can. They'll still sell the same amount of gasoline.

Remember: The 4.3-cent gas tax was here when prices were under $1 a gallon. It's still here with prices nearly double that. The tax is not imposed at the pump; it is collected just after leaving the refinery, meaning that several middlemen would independently have to decide to pass through the savings from repeal before it reaches consumers.

Even in the implausible event that this happened, the average savings to consumers would total less than $1 a week, or, as Rep. Nick Nahall, D-W.Va., stated, a pack of chewing gum per week.

Sound like a good trade-off for ruined roads and transit systems? Not if you contrast these illusory consumer benefits with the annual loss of $5.8 billion to America's highways and the loss of $1.4 billion to transit programs that would result.

Gas-tax revenue is dedicated exclusively for these essential infrastructure investments. Take the money away and roads and bridges would not be repaired, new highways would not be built, mass transit initiatives that reduce our dependence on OPEC oil would fall by the wayside, and needed new safety improvements would not be made.

Moreover, provisions in the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) directly link funding for states and cities to the tax revenue deposited in the Highway Trust Fund. That means repeal of the gas tax would cut more than $20 billion in transportation revenue to the states through fiscal year 2003.

Research has demonstrated that each $1 billion in infrastructure investment generates 42,000 jobs. Thus, a loss of $20 billion would likely cost 840,000 jobs.

It could also deal a body blow to America's unprecedented prosperity. Even in the age of the information superhighway, people and products must be moved around our nation in the most efficient manner possible or our economic engine will sputter and stall.

I find it particularly appalling that so many politicians are peddling the snake oil of the gas-tax repeal while refusing to lift a finger to help those workers who are suffering the most from skyrocketing fuel costs - 40,000 port truck drivers who are the subject of the Teamsters-led Port Truckers Bill of Rights Campaign.

These drivers are being deprived of a much-needed mechanism to recoup the costs of fuel-price hikes and simultaneously being denied the right to form a union due to a perverse interpretation of independent-contractor laws. Here, Congress has the power to save these hard-working men and women from economic devastation. It is long past time for action.

The politicians in Washington should also take other steps to help alleviate the burden of high gas prices.

First, they should ratchet up the pressure on OPEC and non-OPEC countries to increase production and stabilize gas pricing.

Second, they should draw down the Strategic Oil Reserve to alleviate the current shortage and reduce prices.

Third, they should follow the lead of the Clinton administration and increase heating-fuel assistance to working families and make sure it is there permanently during future oil crises.

And fourth, they should take seriously the plight of port truck drivers and finally take action to give them a chance to have their voices heard at the collective bargaining table.

These steps can make a real difference in people's lives without causing economic harm. All that's needed is for politicians to summon the courage to do what is right - and to emphatically reject the cruel hoax of a gas-tax cut that will reward those whose greed has caused the problem, destroy thousands of jobs and starve the nation's transportation system of vital funds to improve safety and make infrastructure improvements.