Report: Tribal tax givebacks could total $533 million by 2020

FIFE, Wash. -- With prices nearing $4 a gallon, every penny matters at a gas station. Even if the state of Washington has already given out $193 million in gas tax givebacks in the last eight years.

That figure comes from a new report by former State Auditor Brian Sonntag, who examined the Native American gas tax repayment system. Under the program, gas stations on tribal land are given back 75 percent of their gas tax.

"This is a political privilege that's been granted to them by the legislature," said Tim Hamilton, a critic of the givebacks and a policy analyst with industry group Automotive United Trades Organization.

Gas stations in the area around Fife's Tahoma Marketplace have lamented that lower prices on tribal lands keep them at a competitive disadvantage. They do not have the same access to tax breaks like the Puyallup Tribe.

Hamilton and the report say that the program also lacks measures of accountability. The deal with the state made in 2005 lacks proper investigative regulation. The report said the Department of Licensing "has no ability whatsoever to obtain records, receipts, invoicing, or any other type of verification documents and as a result, cannot determine on its own or validate in any professional auditing fashion where any of the funds provided the tribe have gone."

Hamilton says the system needs reform.

"When you take this revenue and you have no ability to track it or control it, it's a gift," he said.

The report estimates that by the end of the decade, the total tab for the givebacks could tally $533 million. Those givebacks are supposed to be used specifically for roads and infrastructure but there are absolutely no rules in place to actually see if the tribes follow through.

The Yakima tribe has been fighting in court for years on the issue but did not return a call for comment. The tribe in Puyallup was unaware of the report and said its leaders would speak later.