Without a doubt, it was the most difficult and the most unpopular vote I have had to cast this year. Because it was difficult and unpopular, I want to use this space to talk about why I cast my vote in favor of the gas tax.
To be sure, it would have been easy for me to vote against the gas tax, knowing that passage was all but certain - with or without my vote. Yes, casting a NO vote would have been the popular thing do to, it would have been the easy thing to do, but it would not have been the right thing to do. It would have been a vote based on political expediency rather than honesty and considered thought for the welfare of our district and the state as a whole.
The reality is that we have an aging transportation infrastructure and a mismatch between the revenues and the cost required to maintain this infrastructure. While our costs have been increasing, the sobering reality is that revenue from the gas tax has actually been DECREASING over the past several years.
Unlike the sales tax, which takes a percentage of the sale price, since FY2005 the gas tax has been fixed at 18.245 cents per gallon. This creates two problems: first, inflation eats away at the value of the tax - 18.245 cents today doesn't have the same buying power as 18.245 cents did 7 years ago; second, with the increased cost of gas and more efficient vehicles, drivers are using less gas today than they were 7 years ago. The impact on revenue is significant: in FY2005, the gas tax generated $65.5M in revenue for the transportation fund, but by FY2012, that number dropped to $59.3M. In very simple terms, on average, we are paying less in gas taxes today than we were 7 years ago.
The new structure of the gas tax (as passed the House) gradually moves us to model that looks more like a sales tax (although not exactly like the sales tax), and keeps pace with inflation.
If our own declining tax revenue was not enough of a challenge, there is a related problem that must be considered: matching federal funding. The gas tax actually generates a fraction of the revenues required to maintain our transportation system, but it helps us leverage a significant amount of federal funding. The state relies on nearly $400 million in federal funding to maintain our transportation infrastructure - funding that is tied to a formula based on our state's willingness to provide matching funds. In the absence of getting our state transportation revenues back on track, we have reached a point where we will literally leave federal funds on the table. In my view, it would be fiscally irresponsible to forego matching federal funds, since we would only dig ourselves into a deeper hole and create a bigger problem down the road.
I don't think anyone doubts the need to invest in our transportation system - we are reminded of that every spring - but the money has to come from somewhere; and no one has come up with a better alternative than an increased gas tax.
Speaking of alternatives, I have heard from a number of folks who have been asking about various "raids" on the transportation fund, and ways in which we might be able to reverse those, in a manner that would offset the need for an increased gas tax. Here is the problem: the most significant "raid" on the transportation fund involves the diversion of part of the sales and use tax on automobile sales to the education fund. So the conundrum is this: if we reversed that "raid", we would simply create a shortfall in the education fund that would require an increase in our property taxes. Given the choice between increasing our property taxes vs. sharing the cost of our transportation infrastructure equally between those who live here and those out of state visitors traveling along our highways, I think the latter choice is more appropriate.
Notwithstanding the education fund issue, many voiced the opinion at Town Meetings that had the Transportation Fund not so often been raided, the money would be there, and what is the assurance it will not be déjà vu all over again? I voted for amendments to the gas tax bill that would have provided the assurance that the new revenues would be not be used for anything other than transportation maintenance. I think it says something (not very good) about the legislature that those amendments were defeated. The Senate will know what happened in the House. Perhaps it will deem it appropriate to impose some discipline.
Tax technicalities aside, I come back to the question: do we really want our roads to be in a condition that turns tourists away? Do we really want to drive our cars and trucks on roads that beat up springs, shock absorbers and ball joints?
My vote was not fun, but I feel that it was the only honest and responsible answer to a mounting challenge that we had to face up to.
As always, please don't hesitate to reach out to me with your thoughts, your ideas, and your questions.
Tim Goodwin is the state representative for Weston, Jamaica, Winhall, Stratton and Londonderry.