Let’s raise the gas tax.
There are several reasons we need to discuss this now. One is that plummeting gasoline prices make the idea very timely. Also, people will be asking you this week what you thought of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. Even though he did not mention the gas tax, bringing it up will allow you to avoid having an opinion on whether it’s time to close the capital gains stepped-up-basis loophole.
The gas tax raises much-needed money for roads and mass transit. Our roads, you may have noticed, are falling apart. Every time you hit a pothole, yell: “Raise the gas tax!”
Even more important, it encourages Americans to use fuel-efficient cars. While we’re all happy as clams about falling gas prices, every gallon produces more than 19 pounds of planet-warming emissions. We just had the hottest year on record. The ice floes are melting. Walruses keep piling up along the Alaskan shore, where the babies can get squashed.
Raise the gas tax and remember the walruses.
Plus, it’s not really a tax! Or at least not necessarily. Just ask Ronald Reagan. When he entered office, Reagan said he didn’t see the likelihood of a gas tax increase “unless there’s a palace coup.” But then, you know, stuff happened and The Great Communicator discovered that a levy on gasoline wasn’t really a tax but merely a “user fee.” So no problem at all, and under his administration the, um, fee was more than doubled.
Ah, Ronald Reagan. Perhaps you noticed, during the State of the Union, that Obama was urging Congress to bring the capital gains tax back up to Reagan-era levels? Who’d have thought? We live in ironic times, people.
But about the gas tax. It was also raised under George H.W. (The Good One) Bush, and then again under Bill Clinton. Remember Al Gore breaking the tie in the Senate? Ah, Al Gore.
And that was it. The federal gas tax, currently 18.4 cents a gallon, is not indexed for inflation, and it has not gone up since 1993. The Highway Trust Fund, which pays for the federal highway construction program, keeps falling deeper into the red. It’s scheduled to implode sometime this spring.
The White House has been very clear about its lack of enthusiasm for solving the problem with a gas tax increase. Mainly, the objection is that if Congress wouldn’t pass Obama’s proposal to pay for early education with a tobacco tax, it’s not going to fund road repair with a gas tax. This is a pretty good point. However, deeply cynical souls could also argue that the current majority likes road construction more than preschool.
During the State of the Union, Obama made his pitch for another idea: reform the tax on overseas business profits, creating a one-time-only windfall of revenue for the government to use in a mega-road-building spree.
Three reasons the gas tax is a better idea:
2) Half the members of Congress are eyeing that very same windfall to pay for their own pet programs.
3) Only works once. “It’s just a coward’s way out,” says Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. Genuine fiscal conservatives hate the idea of paying for permanent ongoing programs with one-shot revenues. Corker has been known to complain that he’s been in the Senate for eight years and never saw Congress permanently solve a problem.
Last year Corker and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., floated the idea of raising the gas tax 12 cents over two years. “Our bet when we went out on a limb last year was that we could position it as a topic for serious discussion this year, and I hope it’s going to pay off,” Murphy said.
And it’s working, sort of. A number of prominent Republicans have been muttering things like “nothing is off the table.” Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the new chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and a man whose position on global warming makes him an enemy to walruses everywhere, has said a gas tax is “one of the options.” An option that is not off the table! Truly, the worm has turned.
On the other hand, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, recently announced: “We won’t pass a gas tax.” That would seem to be somewhat discouraging, but there are still these gleams of hope that Republicans might come around since:
▪ You can call it a user fee. (Ask Reagan)
▪ Obama doesn’t like it.
▪ Compromise is possible. Many conservatives hate the fact that the Highway Trust Fund also helps support mass transit and invests in things like highway beautification and bike paths. There might be some room for give here. Let’s throw something in the fund under the proverbial bus. I nominate “transportation museums.”
Walrus seconds the motion.