Skip Tucker: Common Sense

Skip Tucker: Common Sense

By SKIP TUCKER, Alabama Daily News Featured Columnist

I want a new tax the way I wanted the Rams to win the Super Bowl, which is not at all, to be clear (Saints be praised).

Excepting…  excepting the proposed state tax on gas and motor (diesel) fuel. Let’s call it The Gas Tax. The Gas Tax… a genuine user’s fee… is as necessary to Alabama’s health and safety as breathing is to the human body.

Here’s why:

  • Infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) is the heart of a state’s economy. It’s the first thing prospective business looks to when considering expansion. Alabama’s heart is worn thin.
  • One of the singular reasons for a government is for its leaders to use thoughtful taxation to provide and oversee goods and services for the people it governs. Roads and bridges are part and parcel to that provision. Many, many of our roads and bridges are hazardous. No sane person can dispute it with honesty. State leaders must buckle up and step up.
  • The timing is essential. The U.S. Congress is expected to pass a major bill to fund America’s infrastructure. Most of the funding will be through matching grants, meaning we will have to put up millions to receive our fair share of billions. It’s a one-time shot. Alabama doesn’t have enough money to do it. There will be some who say we have plenty of money but it isn’t being used correctly. These people don’t know whether they are horseback or a-foot.
  • The Gas Tax is the fairest of taxes. Those who use the roads most also use the most gas and therefore pay most. The logic is inescapable.  It genuinely is a user’s fee. While any tax impacts all citizens via trickledown, it’s minimal in this case. Those who drive least are least impacted.
  • There is a swapoff, a reasonable one. It’s true that the little old lady in Backwoods, Ala. will feel the impact. It’s truer that if the LOL suddenly needs emergency care and transport to a hospital, a bad road can kill her. Long minutes are wasted when seconds are precious. It happens. Not long ago in, I think, North Carolina an old bridge on an offroad collapsed under the weight of a firetruck trying to get to a housefire. In Alabama, hundreds of bridges are unsafe.
  • There hasn’t been a statewide increase to gas tax since 1992. In that long time, prices for roadbuilding materials have risen up to 250 percent. By the same token, cars are much more fuel efficient and gas usage and revenue is down a third. Infrastructure continues to deteriorate and will deteriorate exponentially unless remedy is applied. If not now, when.

Already, mischief is being made by misinformation, with intent. Already, political agendas are in play. Worms crawl out of the woodwork to scare state legislators into believing that a single vote for a gas tax will defeat them next election. Untrue. Wildly untrue, inaccurate. A thorny falsehood, may it prick the teller.

A single issue rarely, rarely, rarely can defeat a political candidate, though any who lost last time might be quick to claim it did. But no. Any experienced politico knows this. And when the voter travels on roads that are better, faster and safer the voter sees firsthand what the user fee accomplished. All is forgiven. That is a fact. Knavish losers, though, with sly smiles and secret hearts, will seize on this to play politics and sow discord. Feel free to laugh in their faces.

There are a few legitimate concerns. While the tax is a pass-through tax, an add-on fee that harms not the seller of petroleum since it affects all sellers muchly the same, there will be those who feel a gas tax picks on them. That’s why the revenues from a tax must be so very well distributed. Our best minds are needed to ensure fairness to cities, counties and the Little Old Ladies who might need a good road for very survival.

None of the revenues from a gas tax should be diverted. Every cent of it should go to a shovelful of asphalt or concrete or the thousand, thousand things that make good roads.

While it’s true that there’s been no additional state gas tax since 1992, it is also true that cities and counties levy gas taxes all the time. City and county fuel taxes vary wildly. Extremely wildly.  In some, a lot of revenue from them doesn’t go to roads.

The Federal Government will ensure its funding is tied to infrastructure and there are too many watchdogs, here and in DC, for it to be misused to any appreciable extent.

Alabama’s state gas tax is about 18 cents per gallon. While many factors go into that calculation, with some variation, we have the fifth lowest of state gas taxes.

So how much of an increase is discussed. Lowball, from some providers, is 6 cents per gallon. High end, from builders, is 24 cents per gallon. Moderates say 16 cents per gallon.

On average, 16 more cents on a gallon of gas will cost the average driver an additional $112 a year. That isn’t much, relatively.  A pothole can do more damage.

State revenue from the existing state gas tax is about $576 million.  Billions are needed for a longrange solution to our road woes and maintenance of the cure. The huge percentage of it will come from the Federal government if we put up a small percentage of the funding.

Now we enter the thicket.

I have yet to hear of any real person of any sway who opposes a “reasonable” gas tax. Except. Except some providers are armed to oppose a fuel tax if it tied to an “index.” That means they’ll oppose it if it’s tied annually, automatically, to rising costs of materials…a sort of annual cost of living deal.

And that would mean that every few years the problem will have to be re-addressed. A problem that must be revisited every so often isn’t solved, to my mind.

Importantly, and gird your loins for war, is which cities and counties and Interstates will get lion’s shares.

While it is dangerous to try to mess with Federal funding, it’s application is going to be a running battle. It’s impossible to remove the politics from politics.

I believe at this time a gas tax will pass. Gov. Ivey, Lt. Gov. Ainsworth and House Speaker McCutcheon have spoken in favor of it. Legislators who oppose making the pie might find themselves and their districts with a very small slice of it.

Common sense.

(Next week: Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.)

Skip Tucker was editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, then communications secretary for gubernatorial folks like George McMillan, Charlie Graddick and Jim Folsom. He ran Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse for in Montgomery for 15 years. He has published one novel, Pale Blue Light, a spy thriller set in The Civil War. He’s now a regular contributor for the Alabama Daily News at Email Skip HERE