What a difference a year makes. In September 1995, a Deseret News poll found 52 percent were opposed to a gasoline tax increase to pay for billions of dollars in new highway projects. Only 42 percent favored the increase.

Thirteen months later, a new Deseret News/KSL TV poll indicates 53 percent of Utahns polled strongly or somewhat support raising the gasoline tax. Forty percent are opposed to the tax increase and 7 percent are undecided.An increase in the gasoline tax - one tied to increases in inflation - is one option Utah lawmakers will consider when the Legislature convenes in January. Gov. Mike Leavitt supports a tax increase in combination with bonding and earmarking budget surpluses for trans-por-ta-tion.

Actually, Leavitt is careful not to call it a gasoline tax increase. Rather, he refers to it as "indexing" the gasoline tax for inflation. Based on a complicated formula, the "index" would add about 1 cent to the 19-cent per gallon tax each year for the next 10 years.

Leavitt's indexing plan, which has the support of some legislative leaders, calls for automatic increases to the gasoline tax if the price of gasoline increases accordingly. If the price of gasoline increases faster than the average gas prices in surrounding states, Leavitt's proposal caps the yearly increases, requiring a vote of the Legislature to exceed the cap.

Leavitt unveiled the indexing plan a year ago at the Growth Summit where he announced a 10-year, $3 billion highway initiative that includes the reconstruction and expansion of I-15.

Since that time, public opinion has slowly been shifting in favor of a gasoline tax increase tied to inflation. A January 1996 poll found 49 percent favored the tax increase and 46 percent were opposed.

Lawmakers are nervous about indexing because the gasoline tax could increase every year for a decade - potentially a 50 percent tax increase over the current 19-cent-per-gallon tax - without annual authorizations by the Legislature.

Lawmakers also want to look at other funding options like bonding. The latest Deseret News/KSL TV poll indicated 51 percent strongly or somewhat support the use of bonds that would be paid back through future state revenues. Some 32 percent are strongly or somewhat opposed and 18 percent are undecided.

Another option would be to bond for the entire project and then earmark state sales tax revenue from automobile-related sales (car sales, auto parts and repairs) to pay off the bonds. The poll found 52 percent support that idea, while 36 percent are strongly or somewhat opposed and 13 percent undecided.

In all likelihood, the Legislature will have to bond for some of the highway improvements even if the gasoline tax is increased. Increasing the gasoline tax makes sense, Leavitt says, because those who use Utah highways should pay the lion's share of repairing and expanding them.

Leavitt is counting on increased gasoline tax revenues to bring in $500 million over 10 years. At some point, state officials may have to pledge future gasoline tax revenues against bonds.

The poll of 900 Utahns, conducted Oct. 7-10 by Dan Jones & Associates, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Deseret News poll

Over the next few months, the state must decide how to raise $1 billion to rebuild and expand I-15 in Salt Lake County. How should Utah fund that project:

a. Increasing the per-gallon gasoline tax by tying it to inflation in gasoline prices (estimated to be about 1 cent per gallon per year for the next 10 years):

Favor 53%

Oppose 40%

Don't know 7%

b. General obligation bonds for the road work - the bonds to be paid back from future state revenues:

Favor 51%

Oppose 32%

Don't know 18%

c. Take the current state sales tax from automobile-related sales (such as new and used cars, tires, auto parts/repairs) and earmark it for repaying the bonds:

Favor 52%

Oppose 36%

Don't know 13%

This poll of 900 Utah residents was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates Oct. 7-10. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent. Copyright 1996 Deseret News.