A tax by any other name would be a fee
By John D. Turner
11 Jan 2015

Don’t spend all that new-found cash just yet.

Just when you thought that falling gasoline prices were going to bring some relief to your hard-pressed pocketbook, along comes the U.S. Government to the rescue to keep that from happening. Some in congress think that now would be a good time to raise the federal gas tax. After all, you are used to paying $3-4/gallon for gas; now that you are paying under $2, why you won’t even notice an extra quarter or two. Think of it as a “windfall profits” tax, like the one they slapped on oil companies back in 1980.

Congress hates it when someone makes (or in your case, saves) more money than they think they should. Just like your average crime syndicate, they think they deserve a cut; a “piece of the action.” There is always some “worthy” project that the money could fund. Congress has no shortage of ways to spend money. This time, the worthy cause is “fixing our crumbling roads and bridges.”

Hmmm…I thought that was what the stimulus funding back in 2008-2009 was supposed to be aimed at. You remember; all those “shovel-ready” jobs that the President talked about and we funded to the tune of a trillion dollars or so?

In driving through San Antonio, El Paso, Phoenix, and other cities in the past six years or so, I have noticed that we have been constructing some truly beautiful overpasses, bridges, ramps, and such; where we used to simply build them out of concrete, now we are essentially sculpting them in concrete, and painting them as well. They are very nice to look at. I wonder how much extra we pay for all that “gold plating” though. And if the extra money could build or fix another “ordinary” bridge or overpass somewhere else instead?

I also wonder where the extra money came from. Your “stimulus” funds at work?

It isn’t that I object to nice looking infrastructure. That’s fine! But don’t then come back to me and ask for more money to fix “crumbling roads and bridges.” Perhaps you should have fixed the crumbling roads and bridges before you spent the money on the beautification projects. It reminds me of how the city government here in San Antonio whines and complains whenever we the public don’t support their tax hikes.

The story is always how they will have to lay off police and firefighters, won’t have money to fix pot holes, and will have to throw grandma out in the streets or make her eat dog food. But somehow they always have money for beautification projects, buying overpriced and useless infrastructure, and funding gay pride parades.

We are now fixing to spend $40 million to upgrade the Alamodome in anticipation of getting the college final four there again in a few years.

It also isn’t that I necessarily object to an increase in the gasoline tax; at the state level that is. It’s just that I fail to see why it makes sense for me to send my gas tax money to Washington so they can use it to build a bridge to nowhere in Alaska, while we have roads and bridges here in Texas that need attention. And meanwhile here in Texas, there are those in the state government that seem hell-bent on putting in toll roads everywhere, up to and including tolling existing roads, because they claim they don’t have enough money to build new roads or maintain existing roads on the current state gas tax.

Of course, if they would quit spending the tax revenue from the gas tax on other things, perhaps then they might have more for new roads and upkeep on existing ones; as is no-doubt also happening at the federal level too.

The existing federal gas tax raises approximately $33 billion each year; a drop in the bucket and easily lost amid a federal budget that this year, as proposed by the President, of some $3.9 trillion. Of course, three months into the current fiscal year, a budget has not actually been passed. Part of this is because everyone and their brother have a proposal on what the budget should be.

In addition to the President’s proposal, the Republicans have submitted multiple proposals; Rep Paul Ryan (R-WI) put forward a budget that called for $5.1 trillion in cuts over 10 years, though oddly enough, try as I might I could not find anything that gave a final dollar amount for spending in 2015, while the Republican Study Committee offered a budget that would spend only $2.8 trillion. The Democratic Caucus in the House offered up a proposal to spend $3.1 trillion, while the Congressional Black Caucus proposed a budget of $3.26 trillion. Not to be outdone, the Congressional Progressive Caucus came up with a $3.2 trillion budget proposal. All different, all doing different things, and none of which has passed.

But, as Hillary Clinton might say, “what difference does it make?” We haven’t actually had a budget (which is required by the Constitution, incidentally) since Barack Obama took office.

Back to the gas tax thing though. Even though there has been, in my opinion, some chicanery going on here in Texas when it comes to the revenue from the state gas tax, I still would support an increase here, particularly if it drives a stake through the heart of the toll road proponents.

Unlike toll roads I have seen in other states, where the tolls were used to pay for the roads/bridges/tunnels and then, once they were paid for, went away (examples: Pennyrile Parkway, Green River Parkway, and others in Kentucky; Bankhead tunnel in Mobile, Alabama; the Pascagoula Bay bridge in Pascagoula, Mississippi, etc), here in Texas, the tolls are never projected to go away. And they are to be administered by a third party company, with only a percentage actually going to the state. Last I heard, at least one of the companies was located in Spain, and would have a 49 year contract to collect tolls.

I just wonder how much in kickbacks the proponents of these “deals” are getting under the table. Not that I am cynical here or anything.

I also am not extremely happy that, over the years, the bulk of the money has gone to infrastructure in Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The roads through Houston have been under construction since I was in grade school. Now that San Antonio, which has been sending gas tax money to the two aforementioned metropolii for decades, needs money for infrastructure – suddenly there is no money; “but don’t worry - we can build a real nice toll road for you!”

But still, even so, I still would support a gas tax hike at the state level here in Texas. The nice thing about the state gas tax is that it stays in the state. It doesn’t go somewhere else as a political favor to someone, buried somewhere inside some 2,000 page omnibus legislation supposedly dedicated to some other “worthy” cause. It might still get misappropriated – but at least it is being misappropriated here in Texas. That makes it easier to spot, and, at the worst, the money is being spent in Texas, benefiting (hopefully) something within the borders of the state.

I do not support a gas tax hike at the federal level, no how, no way. One would think that this could not happen, now that, just this week, the Republicans have been seated in the new congress where they control both the House and Senate. Republicans after all, are against raising taxes, right? Indeed, most have signed a pledge not to do so.

But then again, with congress critters, you have to be very careful. You and I might call this a tax, but to some in congress, it is a road-use “fee.” And they haven’t pledged not to raise “fees.”

Senator Inhofe (R-OK) is on board; “I just think that option is there, it’s clearly one of the options.” Senator Inhofe is the new, incoming chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Senator John Thune (R-SD) are also “open to the possibility of raising the tax.”

“People who use the highways ought to pay for them,” stated Hatch, in keeping with the “fee” characterization, while Thune stated, “The user fee is very, very popular. The evidence of that is a lot of states are doing that on their own because ‘well, if the federal government won’t do it we’ve got to do something about the roads.’”

No, the states are “doing something about it” because it is their job to “do something about it.” With the possible exception of the Interstate highway system, (which one would think $33 billion a year could keep up and running), it is not the job of the federal government to build or maintain roads in the various states. It is a bit frightening that Senator Inhofe, a Republican, is unaware of that and apparently unacquainted with the concept of Federalism, which is how the country is supposed to operate. As it is stated in the 10th amendment to the Constitution:

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Nowhere in the constitution is the responsibility for building and maintaining roads in the various states ceded to the federal government.

Democrats in both houses are, of course, eager to raise the gas tax, particularly now that any fallout over it will fall squarely on Republicans and not them. They hate the cheaper gas prices, as this upsets the applecart when it comes to their war on “big oil” and the drive for “sustainable” energy sources such as wind, solar, and ethanol based fuels.

Has anyone noticed that E85 is now more expensive than regular unleaded? And that is with the federal subsidies for the alcohol in it.

President Obama has been fighting cheaper oil for his entire administration, which is why he has tightly restricted oil exploration and fracking on public lands, and has blocked construction of the XL Keystone pipeline, and now threatens to veto any legislation that crosses his desk that would enable it.

The House is not as eager to raise the tax as the Senate appears to be, so it probably won’t happen. Still, it is somewhat disquieting that, just days into the start of the new Republican Congress, we are already discussing raising taxes – I mean “fees” of course, something that is supposedly anathema to Republicans. One only has to hearken back to President George H. W. Bush’s famous “read my lips” promise – that he later broke, and which the Democrats were all too happy to make political hay with during the 1992 election.

This isn’t going to give a warm fuzzy to those Conservatives who already distrust the Republican leadership.