An increase in the gasoline tax is inevitable but not likely anytime soon, according to Gov. Mike Leavitt.

At his monthly KUED-TV press conference, the governor said with the state looking at infrastructure needs costing in excess of $2 billion, a gasoline tax hike eventually will be necessary."The question is `when and how much?' " Leavitt said. Not right away, he answered, because new spending proposals totaling more than $80 million will provide a sufficient stopgap. However, he predicted a tax hike will be necessary sometime within the next 12 years.

Some local officials have been calling for an immediate tax hike, saying it's the only way to seriously address what they characterize as a highway infrastructure crisis on a continuing basis.

But with the state projecting a $70 million surplus in 1995 and $200 million in 1996, any talk of a tax hike is likely to be muzzled quickly in the upcoming Legislature.

The governor also defended his proposal to shelter about half of the 1995 surplus in a new Transportation Investment Account, where it won't be subject to the state's spending-limitation law. The proposed budget maneuver conforms to both the letter and spirit of the law and isn't "sleight of hand" to dodge it, Leavitt said.

Taxpayers will get some form of tax break amounting to about $30 million if lawmakers approve the governor's proposed budget and could get much more if alternative plans gain favor.

Leavitt called his budget "very responsible" considering the critical needs facing the state. Pointing to an equivalent tax decrease last year, the governor said $60 million in tax cuts in two years is "significant."

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