Congress's finale - Reagan vs. the conservatives

Like the recipient of an unwanted gift, the trucking industry is heading straight for the ''return'' window to take back the federal fuel tax package.

The industry is hopping mad at Congress for passing the controversial bill this week, and two courses of action are likely:

* A bid to seek ''amelioration'' of the bill as early as possible in the 98th Congress.

* A shutdown by independent truckers after Jan. 1.

What annoys truckers is not a 5-cent-a-gallon hike in fuel taxes - ''We can all live with that,'' says Greta Hayes of the National Council of Independent Truckers in Lemont, Ill. - but the graduated tax on heavy trucks. That tax starts at $1,600 a year in 1983 and rises to $1,900 in 1988.

On top of a schedule of new increases in excise taxes on new and retreaded tires, motor oil, and truck parts, the industry estimates the effect on long-haul truckers will be $3,000 to $4,000 more a year in costs. The effect on the average motorist is expected to be $30 more a year.

Says Bennett C. Whitlock Jr., president of the American Trucking Associations (ATA) in Washington: ''I am appalled that the Senate would pass a bill like this at a time when our economy is in the worst shape since 1936. The tax burden is one that the industry cannot afford. It's totally objectionable. We have no choice but to go back to Congress next year, when there's more time, and seek amelioration of this bill.''

He said the ATA, which speaks for 16,800 trucking firms in all 50 states, would seek to pattern that amelioration on an amendment offered by US Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R) of Minnesota. The amendment would have postponed a graduated tax on heavy trucks in 1983 and then phased in a $1,200 increased levy over the next three years. It passed the Senate by a vote of 96 to 1, but the substance of it was lost when Senate and House conferees met to resolve differences in their respective versions of the bill.

Mr. Whitlock says the new bill would add $1.7 billion a year to industry operating costs at a time when projected profits for 1982 are $210 million out of gross revenues of $44.1 billion.

Small trucking firms and independent owner-operators, Whitlock said, will find it exceptionally difficult to survive in the face of the increases.

Spokesmen for the 30,000-member Independent Truckers Association (ITA) in Van Nuys, Calif., say a shutdown after Jan. 1 is possible. The last time independent truckers struck was in June 1979 over increased diesel fuel prices and supply shortages.

It is illegal for organizations like the ITA to call a strike, but press officer David Coleman says: ''The feeling in the industry is that there should be a shutdown, and we'll help organize it. Operators are angrier now than they were in 1979.''

Mr. Coleman claims $30 billion already is available between the Federal Highway Trust Fund and other sources for highway repairs.

Robert Jasmon, director of the 2,000-member Midwest Truckers Association in Springfield, Ill., calls the tax increases ''devastating and very unfair.''

A nationwide protest of truckers, he says, would more than likely consist of ''a bunch of guys taking their trucks home and parking them and saying, 'Hey, get your goods hauled the best way you can.' ''

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