Wednesday, December 26, 2007

"Lawmakers should reconsider the diversion of gasoline tax money."

Like cars in traffic, gas tax doesn’t budge

December 26, 2007

By The Editorial Board
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

The refusal of most state political leaders to even consider raising taxes, no matter how popular the use for the revenue or how obvious the need, is costing the state dearly. There’s no better example than local highways and the testy holiday exchange between state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and the Texas Department of Transportation.

No one who travels the state’s highways, especially in and around its growing, prosperous cities, is unaware of the need for rebuilding and expanding existing roads, as well as building new ones. Central Texas is no exception.

How to pay for that, though, has been a problem.

Governors and most legislators since 1991 have refused to raise the 20-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax , even as inflation each year ate away at its value. In 2006, revenue from the state gasoline tax grew 2 percent, but highway construction costs leaped 25 percent, according to the transportation department.

To make that erosion worse, the Legislature over the years - to keep from raising other taxes - has diverted millions of dollars from the highway fund to pay for other state needs, including the Texas Department of Public Safety. This year, the Legislature got permission from the state’s voters to borrow $5 billion to fund highway construction, but that money will be paid back with general state revenue, not the gasoline tax.

Gov. Rick Perry has refused to support any increase in the gasoline tax, as has the Legislature, particularly since Republicans achieved a majority in both houses in 2003.

The governor, through the transportation department, has favored tolls to pay for new highway construction. The Legislature went along, until too many of its members got hammered by constituents angry about tolls and who would profit from building them . Lawmakers this year tapped the brakes on toll road plans but didn’t order a full stop.

The newly inaugurated Watson this year took a great deal of political heat to revise a stalled tolled highway plan and got it approved in October. But shortly thereafter, the transportation department announced a major reduction in future spending on new highways. When Watson demanded an explanation, the department cited inflation, cuts in federal highway funding, diversions of gasoline tax money to other uses ($1.5 billion in this two-year-budget cycle) - and the new limits on toll roads imposed by the Legislature.

Watson wasn’t satisfied by that answer.

But the Legislature won’t reconvene in regular session until January 2009. When it does, lawmakers should reconsider the diversion of gasoline tax money to other uses and the amount of the tax itself.

An increase of 10 cents per gallon would raise roughly $1 billion per year. Ten cents would be a notable increase but hardly shocking. Federal statistics show that the average gasoline price as of mid-December in Texas was 65 cents a gallon higher than a year ago.

No one wants to pay more, but a 10 cent tax increase would have at least one big advantage over other gas price increases: The money would be spent here on highways, not shipped to Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Russia or elsewhere.

Of course, lawmakers could accept more tolling on highways. Or continue to pretend that somehow, some way, new highways will get built without costing anybody any money.

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