Gas tax bill is rammed through Diet

by and

If you forgot to fill up your gas tank last night, you’re out of luck.

Gasoline prices were poised to rise Thursday after the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc rammed a tax bill through the Diet on Wednesday to reinstate “provisional” extra rates for gasoline and other car-related taxes that expired last month.

The Democratic Party of Japan, which tried to abolish the extra rates by getting them to expire, boycotted the overriding vote in protest. Overrides have now been used twice since the coalition lost control of the Upper House to the opposition last July.

The vote ensured that gas prices will climb about ¥25 on Thursday and stay there for another 10 years. With oil companies also set to pass higher crude oil costs onto shipment prices, the retail price of regular gasoline is expected to rise to an all-time high of around ¥160 per liter.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda told a news conference in the evening that reinstating the extra tax rates was a difficult but necessary decision, saying he wants the public to understand it.

“I am well aware that many people are against raising gasoline prices amid the rise in the prices of other daily products,” Fukuda said. “But can we just leave this situation in which (the government) lacks revenue and (ignore) the urgent voices seeking solid measures addressing social welfare (issues) like medical treatment and the low birthrate?”

Fukuda said that in just the one month since the extra rates expired, the national and local governments saw a ¥180 billion shortfall in revenue. About 5,000 road-construction projects have been put on hold nationwide, he said.

The prime minister also said that no other country in the world is lowering gasoline prices, noting that the extra rates are necessary also from the viewpoint of environmental measures.

The opposition camp has been strongly pushing to let local municipalities use the road-linked levies for general purposes according to their needs.

Fukuda declared at the end of March that he would allow that to happen next fiscal year.

However, the ruling coalition is aiming to hold another overriding vote as early as May 12 to pass a bill that would allow gasoline and other car-related taxes to be used solely for road construction projects.

The DPJ has repeatedly hinted at the possibility of submitting a censure motion against Fukuda if the ruling bloc holds another revote in mid-May. This would be aimed at forcing Fukuda into dissolving the Lower House and calling a snap election.

Deputy DPJ chief Naoto Kan said a censure motion has never been passed against a prime minister in the Upper House, and doing so now would carry historic significance. But he also said the DPJ will consider the option carefully while watching developments over the next few weeks.

Article 59 of the Constitution gives the Lower House the authority to pass a bill with a two-thirds majority in a second vote, if the Upper House does not take up the bill within 60 days.

The lower chamber approved the tax reform bill Feb. 29, but the opposition-controlled Upper House refused to deliberate it for weeks in a bid to lower gasoline prices. The extra rates, which had been in place for decades, expired March 31, dropping gasoline prices by about ¥25 per liter.

Since the Upper House did not vote before the 60-day limit, which fell on Tuesday, the ruling bloc, which holds more than two-thirds of the seats in the Lower House, held the revote Wednesday.

“More than 70 percent of the public is against the ¥2.6 trillion tax hike, but the Lower House used its two-thirds majority and passed it. It’s clear evidence that the lower chamber is very far from the will of the public,” the DPJ’s Kan said. “I believe they should just dissolve (the chamber and hold a general election).”

However, Fukuda denied any plans at the moment to dissolve the Lower House.

“I don’t think (I) need to dissolve (the lower chamber) over each individual issue,” Fukuda told the evening news conference. “(I) will consider comprehensively (whether or not to call a snap election) and come to a decision. Now is not the time.”

Inside the Diet, as a last-minute bid to stop the second vote, more than 100 DPJ lawmakers gathered to shout and hold up banners protesting the ruling bloc’s maneuver.

Machimura slammed the DPJ-led opposition camp for not voting on the bills for two months in the upper chamber in the first place. “It shows lack of responsibility. It’s negligence,” he said.