Matthew Stokes: Gas tax not a ‘betrayal’

Matthew Stokes: Gas tax not a ‘betrayal’

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News

After a brief but intense special session of the Alabama legislature, the Rebuild Alabama Act is now law.  We will all notice an uptick in gas prices later this summer, with additional increases to come in subsequent years.  In exchange, we should expect to see improvements in our roads and other infrastructure throughout the state.

The proposal, endorsed by leaders from around the state, was a revealing moment in state governance. The discussion of the gas tax centered on three things: the process through which the legislation was introduced, debated, and passed; the legislation itself; and, of course, the broader argument about the need for funding and how best to appropriate those funds.  Let’s consider those in order.

First, many conservative opponents of the Rebuild Alabama legislation took issue with how the entire process was handled.  Certainly things moved quickly, as the governor initiated a special session of the legislature and within days, the bill had become law.  Yet it was well within the governor’s purview to call the session. Ideally, there would never be a need for a special session, but had this bill come up during the regular session, one could only imagine the cornucopia of legislation that would have been proposed and debated, all for the purpose of keeping the gas tax off the agenda.  If legislators, policymakers, and activists do not want special sessions, then they should make certain that the regular session takes up serious proposals first and foremost. The decision to call the special session and force the legislature to take a stand was a savvy move on the part of the governor. She has revealed herself to be a wise and experienced negotiator.

Governor Ivey has drawn criticism for some of her comments in the last week wherein she said that legislative candidates were “vetted” behind the scenes to determine their level of support for a gas tax.  Critics suggest this is proof of a conspiracy between some Republican leaders and the Business Council of Alabama, but this is how political coalitions are supposed to operate. Coalitions united around an issue, or a set of issues, compile their resources and support like-minded candidates.  Ideally, political parties serve this function, but when they don’t, coalitions of concerned parties – James Madison called them factions – inevitably appear. This is perfectly normal, provided there are other factions in place to check them. The fact that the Rebuild Alabama act went through so strongly – less than 20 percent of Republicans opposed the measure – suggests that these legislators realized the need for revenue was serious.  It’s not that the “fix was in,” but instead that most legislators recognized that the need was real.

There is also the related complaint that no one in the Republican Party (or the Democratic Party for that matter) campaigned specifically on raising the gas tax.  There is some truth to this, though Ivey and many legislative candidates discussed it in code words like “infrastructure” and “investment.” In all honesty, I wish candidates had been more direct in their messaging. Any citizen who keeps up with events in Montgomery had to have known this was on the agenda. Still, most of the policy arguments in last fall’s campaign centered on expanding Medicaid and creating a lottery, and most voters were tuned out on those issues as well.  It’s not a coincidence that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Walt Maddox was often quiet on the gas tax during the campaign. Voters are never fond of tax increases, and any candidate who pushed the issue too hard was likely to find out what life is like back in the private sector. I hope candidates can learn to better communicate these needs to voters, but politics is messy business.  There may have been a certain degree of subterfuge, but this was not a betrayal.

Then there is the matter of the bill itself.  The bill was aided in two keys. First, as noted here previously, was the effort by Senator Clyde Chambliss to ensure greater oversight of ALDOT through the Alabama Legislative Joint Transportation Committee.  Chambliss’ effort had bipartisan support, and was a concrete step to ensuring that oversight and accountability had as much bite as it did bark.  It was a commendable move. Secondly, Governor Ivey took the step of partially curbing the diversion of funds from the Road and Bridge Fund into other departments.  The good folks at the Alabama Policy Institute have called for a complete end to the diversion of $63 million dollars, but Governor Ivey’s move to limit $30 million is a positive first step.  Beyond these two important measures, the bill will be a success provided that funding to the Port of Mobile does in fact leaded to sustained economic growth, and that, on the whole, drivers around the state see some measure of improvement in their roads and bridges.  It may prove to be a bit like one of James Spann’s winter weather forecasts: some of us are elated, while others are let down, but if there is overall improvement, voters should be pleased.

Lastly there is the broader issue of taxation, with many around the state suggesting it was a betrayal of conservatism for any legislator to vote to raise taxes.  To the extent that we have defined conservatism by this one metric, I suppose it is true. Yet conservatism is going to look different at the federal, state, and local level.  The needs are simply different; recall that the great tax-slayer Ronald Reagan enacted a rather significant tax hike while governor of California. Of course I would love to see government spending cut down, but just as proponents of the gas tax were a little quiet about their position, I have yet to hear proponents of spending cuts make a sustained, coherent case for long-term plan to tighten the state’s belt.  Both positions can lead to some uncomfortable conversations in line at the ballpark concession stand, but leaders have be willing to take the heat regardless of where they land on the question.

I want to keep government as small as possible, but I also want to push power down to the most local level possible.  In practical terms, that means that you can’t disempower both Washington and Montgomery. None of us want to pay more taxes, but infrastructure is one of the few things that cannot get done any other way.  This may not have been a perfect bill, and certainly future legislatures will tinker and tweak it in various ways. In the end, though, it is an important achievement of mature governance that recognizes improvements cannot come about on their own.