The saga of the 5-cent gasoline tax (cont.)

President Reagan's signature last week did not end the saga of the 5-cent gasoline tax. Another chapter is being written by one of the President's fellow Republicans, the chairman of the Senate subcommittee on intergovernmental relations. He is David Durenberger of Minnesota, who is working on a substitute bill to let states collect the extra 5 cents a gallon themselves. He expects to introduce it in February or March before the present act goes into effect on April 1.

Why bother?

For one reason, the lame-duck rush to pass the 5-cents-a-gallon federal tax caught various would-be amenders before they could act. Despite its passage, truckers have not given up trying to get revision of the extra tax it imposes on them. Despite Mr. Reagan's eventual support for the bill, is he really any happier about a federal tax hike in January than in June? He calls this one a user fee to repair the nation's roads and bridges. According to speculation on Capitol Hill, he might conceivably go further in line with his New Federalism and seek block grants to give states more independence in implementation.

This independence is what Senator Durenberger is seeking in his own way, though he has referred to some of Mr. Reagan's arguments for New Federalism as ''about the thinnest dodge I've ever seen.'' Will Mr. Durenberger's arguments for his gas-tax alternative draw a more favorable response from the White House? They do seem to be more in tune than the present law with the Reagan philosophy. A sample:

The present law could eliminate more jobs than it creates. One reason is that it begins immediately to take money - perhaps $7 billion a year - out of people's pockets. It does not start putting it back into productive use until after the long process of states submitting plans under 30 different grant programs, having them approved by Washington under certain formulas, and getting cranked up for the actual work.

By contrast, the Durenberger plan would give states themselves the option of collecting all or part of the 5 cents. States that did so could start spending it immediately on transportation projects of their own choosing, from potholes on up. Construction workers' wage levels would not be protected by the federal Davis-Bacon Act, as under the present tax-increase law. But the other side of the coin would be the possibility of jobs for more people at lower wages.

Many state projects are already planned or underway but need more funds. States already impose gasoline taxes averaging 9 cents a gallon. Under the present law they could be tempted to put off needed repairs while waiting for federal proceeds. Under the alternative, they could pay as they go and keep up with needs.

But would states do as good road and bridge work without Washington looking over their shoulders? It would depend on the state. At least the responsibility for collecting the money, for spending it, and for overseeing the results would be in the same place.

In most states, it is calculated, the new tax income would be in keeping with the gas usage on their roads and bridges. But the existing 4-cent federal gasoline tax, the highway trust fund, and the new truckers' tax would be available to compensate for imbalances and ensure federal transportation responsibilities are met.

For example, there would still be a penny for mass transit, as under the 5 -cent federal tax hike. But it would be taken from the original 4-cent tax instead of from the portion collected by the states.

Many details still have to be worked out. Senator Durenberger has been consulting with governors on how to move forward. May-be this is an idea whose time has not come. But it is a time when input from all sides would be helpful.

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