Oct. 08–WASHINGTON — Sen. Ted Cruz and his GOP allies are looking to hold his Democratic challenger, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, over a barrel with an arcane bit of energy policy.
The Republicans have taken to bashing O’Rourke for supporting a $10 per barrel tax on oil, with Cruz citing that charge both on the campaign trail and in a TV advertisement and an outside super PAC group making the issue the centerpiece of an expensive advertising blitz.
“For anyone in the oil and gas industry, you would have to be out of your mind to vote for Beto O’Rourke,” Cruz said at a recent campaign event, seeking to drive a wedge between his opponent and one of Texas’ most important industries.
O’Rourke rejects the broader attack that he’s an enemy of the energy sector.
“I strongly support the oil and gas industry and the workers of Texas who have helped to make us far more energy independent and secure, who are creating significant job opportunities and economic growth for our state,” he said recently.
But what about that $10 per barrel tax on oil?
The federal government doesn’t have a $10 a barrel tax on oil, though Texas and other states do levy oil production through what are known as severance taxes. Legislation to enact a federal per-barrel oil tax hasn’t even come up for a vote in the House since O’Rourke was elected in 2012.
The Democrat nevertheless did effectively vote in support of the idea. Or more specifically, he voted against a non-binding measure opposing the idea.
All of this goes back to 2016, when then-President Barack Obama floated the idea of a $10 a barrel tax on oil, paid by energy companies, to fund infrastructure investment. The Democrat wanted to target those dollars toward mass transit, high-speed rail and other “clean transportation.”
The idea went nowhere.
There is wide agreement on the need to improve the country’s crumbling roads, bridges and tunnels, which have suffered partly because the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gasoline tax — paid at the pump — has seen its purchasing power diminish after not being raised since 1993.
But GOP leaders did not see a $10 per barrel tax on oil as the answer, pointing to analyses that said such a proposal would raise gas prices by more than 20 cents per gallon.
To hammer home their opposition and perhaps extract political pain from their Democratic rivals, House GOP leaders in June 2016 held a vote on a concurrent resolution that opposed Obama’s proposal. The measure, which passed the House, lacked the force of law.
O’Rourke voted against the resolution.
The vast majority of Democrats did the same, though Texans like Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo, Rep. Al Green of Houston, Rep. Gene Green of Houston, Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth and Rep. Filemon Vela of Brownsville parted with their party to vote in support of the measure.
O’Rourke recently defended the vote, explaining that he just wanted to “make sure that we have options available” to fund infrastructure improvements.
“I’m open to whatever ensures we finance our infrastructure needs,” he told The Dallas Morning News. “Whether that’s assessed at the pump, whether it’s assessed through usage, whether it’s assessed at the barrel, I know there has to be some way to finance our investment in our roads.
“That’s something Republicans and Democrats agree upon,” he added. “The open discussion is about how best to do that.”
That explanation is unlikely to tamp down criticism from Cruz and his allies.
In addition to Cruz’s own critiques, the conservative Ending Spending Action Fund is highlighting the vote in what Politico reported is a $1 million advertising campaign aimed at labeling O’Rourke as a Democrat who’s too liberal for Texas voters.
“Not for us,” the ad says.
Washington bureau chief Todd J. Gillman contributed to this report.
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