March 23, 2001 11:00 pm

By James Sinks#

Observer Capital Correspondent

SALEM In whats becoming one of the more contentious issues of the legislative session so far, eastside lawmakers say they will stop cold any taxes on studded tires.

Even before a task force on Wednesday released its final recommendations on how to recoup some of the costs, several key lawmakers in the Oregon House said theyll likely deflate any attempt to collect money from users of the traction tires.

Studded-tire fees would be a tax on safety, and thats not somewhere I want to go, said House Speaker Mark Simmons, R-Elgin. I dont believe youll see anything like that come to the floor this session.

The task force said motorists statewide ought to pay $40 annually for a permit similar to a sno-park permit to use the tires, but that low-income residents ought to get a price break. The panel declined a recommended discount for Oregonians who live east of the Cascades.

Proposals to tax motorists to pay for studded tire damage

have become a regular affair at the statehouse.

The Oregon Department of Transportation says it costs at least $11 million every year to repair stud-caused wear, mainly ruts carved out of well-traveled highway lanes.

And that doesnt count the millions in damage that doesnt get attention: One analysis said studs account for as much as $50 million a year.

Faced with those dollar signs, many lawmakers, including Senate President Gene Derfler, say users of studded tires should pony up the cash to pay for the necessary repairs.

Adding to the debate this year is the improving quality of stud-less traction alternatives, which are nearing studded tires in stopping ability in most weather conditions.

But as in the last several sessions, any attempt to recoup money from users of studded tires is being blocked by a handful of well-placed lawmakers.

Rep. Bruce Starr, R-Hillsboro, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, which will hold a hearing Friday in Redmond, said hes not inclined to favor any sort of new fee for studded tires anywhere in the state, saying police ought to be enforcing traffic laws and not chasing traction-tire deadbeats.

Hed prefer to tackle the notion of fees in an interim committee, not during the session. I dont want to shut the door completely, but I dont think well solve it in the heat of the legislative session, he said.

In addition, the vice chairman of the transportation panel, Rep. Alan Brown, R-Newport, is a Les Schwab tire dealer and opposes a fee.

Simmons said any studded-tire bills would be sent to either Starrs committee or to the House Business, Labor and Consumer Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, who also opposes fees or taxes on studded tires. This is a very divisive issue in this state and it makes things difficult, Simmons said. But Im not willing to see the safety of Eastern Oregonians, or any Oregonians, compromised.