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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 04/29/2008

A holiday from gas prices?

By Michael Dobbs

Gas prices hit $4 a gallon.

"Barack Obama's argument that immediately reducing gas prices won't help American commuters is shockingly naive and out of touch...Gas tax relief worked when Barack Obama voted for it in the Illinois legislature, and it would work nationally now."
--Republican National Committee spokesman Alex Conant, April 28, 2008.

Both John McCain and Hillary Clinton have called for a "gas tax holiday" this summer to offer commuters and vacationers some release from spiraling gas prices. They have urged Congress to suspend the 18.4 cent federal gas tax and 24.4 cent diesel tax between Memorial Day and Labor Day, a step that could cost the government about $10 billion in revenues. The only major candidate to oppose the idea is Barack Obama, who voted for a similar measure in Illinois eight years ago. Obama now says that consumers will derive little benefit from the tax moratorium. So who is right?

The Facts

When gas prices hit a shocking $2 a gallon in Illinois in the summer of 2000, politicians demanded action. As a Democratic state senator, Obama joined other lawmakers in pushing through a six-month suspension in the state's 5 percent sales tax on gasoline. While there was some talk about making the moratorium permanent, the tax was reinstated in January 2001, after Illinois Gov. George Ryan told lawmakers that the state could not afford to continue the tax break.

The gas tax moratorium proved politically popular in Illinois, but economically questionable. The Illinois Economic and Fiscal Commission estimated that the state lost $175 million in revenues during the six-month period. A subsequent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that gas prices fell by 3 percent, meaning that only three fifths of the savings from reduced taxes was passed on to consumers.

"It turned out to have a pretty small effect," said Joseph Doyle, an assistant economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Consumers were slightly better off, but the benefits were spread very thinly, and the government was a lot worse off."

A poll by the Chicago Tribune showed that only 28 percent of motorists believed that they were actually paying less for gas as a result of the temporary suspension of the tax. Obama has changed his mind dramatically on the tax cut since voting for it back in 2000 in Illinois. On the campaign trail Monday in North Carolina, he described the proposal as a "short-term quick fix that we can say we did something even though we're not really doing anything."

Some economists say that a nationwide "gas tax holiday" would have even less impact on gas prices than temporary state moratoriums, such as the one passed by Illinois in 2000. "It's basic economics," said Leonard Burman, director of the Tax Policy Center, a non-partisan thinktank. "Gas is always in very short supply during the summer, which is why prices go up. In order to reduce the price, you would have to increase supply, but that is difficult over the short term, because the refineries cannot add capacity."

James Hamilton, professor of economics at the University of California at San Diego, said that most of the benefits from a temporary tax moratorium would likely go to producers rather than consumers. He said that states that suspend gas taxes are able to respond to rising demand more efficiently than the country as a whole, because gasoline supplies can be easily moved from one state to another.

"Prices would certainly rise to the market-clearing level," said Hamilton. "I would expect the price [of gas] to go back to very close to where it was before [the tax cut], in which case consumers would not see any benefit."

Another economist, Jeffrey Perloff, of UC-Berkeley, agreed that a federal tax moratorium would likely have less impact on consumer gas prices than a state moratorium. He said his models showed that a suspension of the 18.4-cent federal tax on gasoline would likely result in a temporary 9- to 12-cent reduction in the cost of a gallon of gas to the consumer, with the remainder of the reduction coming in wholesale prices.

The Pinocchio Test

The advocates of a "gas tax holiday" are exaggerating the benefits to consumers from their proposal. If the Illinois experience is a guide, there is likely to be some reduction in the price of gas, but it would fall well short of the size of the tax reduction. In order to pay for the tax cut, the government would have to cut back on highway construction and maintenance or find some other way of plugging the shortfall in revenues to the Highway Trust Fund.

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By Michael Dobbs  | April 29, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  2 Pinocchios, Barack Obama, Candidate Watch, Economy  
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