Gas and vehicle taxes should not be spent only on road construction but also on protecting the environment, including maintaining the nation’s forests, according to the new minister of land, infrastructure and transport.

“It is important to maintain Japan’s forests, which absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis,” Tetsuzo Fuyushiba told The Japan Times recently. “We need to take care (of the forests) so that enough carbon dioxide can be absorbed.”

The lawyer also said the tax money could be used to develop technologies to protect the environment.

Fuyushiba is the only member of New Komeito, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s junior coalition partner, appointed to the new Cabinet. He took over the post from Kazuo Kitagawa, also from New Komeito.

Revenue from eight types of tax, including the gasoline tax, are used to build roads. But critics argue that the government is wasting the money building unnecessary roads at the expense of more important targets.

The government and the ruling parties have agreed to spend some of the money in different areas but have yet to decide whether to restrict it to other costs related to vehicles and roads, or to put some of it elsewhere, including welfare.

The decision is expected to be made by December, when the next fiscal budget is drafted.

Because the auto and transportation industries as well as politicians with interests in those industries are strongly opposed to moving the money, the issue will be a test of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s promise to continue with reforms and a challenge for Fuyushiba.

The ex-New Komeito secretary general, who served that post for six years, has spent some of his time trying to ease the divisions between his party and the LDP. He is drinking buddies with veteran LDP lawmaker Taku Yamasaki, who was his LDP counterpart from 2001 to 2003. Their relationship improved ties between the two parties, which are diametrically opposed on some issues.

However, he reportedly had a tough time building a close relationship with Abe when he was the party’s secretary general because the prime minister is not a drinker.

Fuyushiba said that in his opinion, use of road construction funds should be expanded to include environmental programs but not into areas unrelated to vehicles and roads.

“We should discuss the issue with the finance minister and respect the opinions of taxpayers in deciding the details of how to use the money,” he said. The taxpayers he referred to are drivers and auto manufacturers.

Commenting on the sharp decrease in public works projects, he said there is a need to efficiently build and maintain seaports, airports and other transportation network so the country can be a strong exporter.

“Japan is facing a graying society” which means less purchasing power, said Fuyushiba. “Japan needs to construct a sufficient international distribution system so that even if the population decreases, the market will expand.”

The budget for public works projects was as high as 14.9 trillion yen in fiscal 1998. It has declined since, to 7.2 trillion yen this fiscal year, he said.

Fuyushiba said the government must be fully aware of the actual traffic demands when building roads to be able to use the construction budget most effectively.

He also strongly favors a law to allow foreign residents to vote in local-level elections.

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