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Matthew Stokes: A fiscal conservative ponders the gas tax

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist
By the time this goes to print, most all of Alabama’s students will be back at school, and the rest of us will be back to work.  Our elected officials are doing the same; Alabama’s legislative session begins this week, and Congress is back in Washington D.C.
With the House of Representatives in Democrat control, it’s fair to say that tax levels won’t be getting any lower. In Alabama, though, even Republicans have made clear their intentions to look for new ways revenue, including a possible gas tax.  In the abstract – that is, not accounting for the specifics of any piece of legislation – I think there’s something to this.

We often talk about government tightening its belt during lean times, just as we all do in our own homes. I recall a few of those conversations with my parents as a kid, and I certainly know what that is like as an adult.  The problem is that this analogy often does not go far enough. Yes, sometimes you cut back on spending until you get through a financial crunch. Other times, though, you need to bring in revenue. You have a yard sale. You sell the furniture you’ve been holding onto in the basement.  You pick up a second job for a few months.

Of course none of that is as permanent as a tax increase, so I understand we have to be really cautious here. The bigger point is that government needs to have enough revenue to fulfill its central role, and it should probably have a little more (and I do mean little) to ensure that it can survive economic changes.  One example closer to home is that some of our best local school systems are well-funded by local taxes on both sales and property. I know that cannot be easily replicated in all areas, but we should glean from those experiences what we can, instead of bitterly deriding those districts as the results of wealthy zip codes.

For a long time, Republicans have waved the Reaganite banner of low taxes and limited government.  That is a strong mantra, but it overlooks the economy that was in place when Reagan ran for and took office.  The level of taxation and federal regulation was staggering, and anyone who thinks conservatives and Republicans have not been effective these last few decades should look at the state of things in 1979 and compare it to today.  In fact, it is the very fact that we have significantly lower taxes and far smaller tax burden than forty years ago that should propel Republicans to retain their core principles while shifting their policy and public relations to the needs and concerns of 2019.

Instead of reducing government down to its bare minimum, it may be time for Republicans to lead the way for a government that is far more efficient at giving taxpayers value for their taxes.  That does not mean that sales and property taxes should give us luxuries; if your local high school wants the football stadium to look like JerryWorld, sell doughnuts. Yet if we want quality education and infrastructure, over the long term, it is going to take a certain amount of investment.  That could possibly be done on a bare bones budget, but we’re increasingly coming to the point where the less complicated option is to make those things happen with moderate, reasonable taxes that are well-managed and restrained, as opposed to slashing taxes every time we get the chance and then scrambling to fill in budget gaps down the road.

When things don’t work, when government fails to deliver on its basic promises and responsibilities, the door is opened for demagogues on the left and the right.  Progressives like Bernie Sanders draw a lot of support because they’re speaking into areas where a lot of voters feel let down. The same is true of right-wing populists like Donald Trump who ascend because voters feel that their needs are not being met.  Neither of these options provide solutions, however, because they thrive on blame and accusation, turning their own voting base into an aggrieved class of victims who are no longer able to distinguish cause and effect.

This is not an easy task, but leadership is hard.  Legislating and governing are hard. The work of distinguishing between the responsibilities of government and the responsibilities of the private sphere is not easy, but it is the duty of a citizen. No one ever promised us that citizenship would be easy, either.  It is the necessary work, though, of living in a free and orderly society, one that maintains strong governance, robust debate, and manages to keep demagogues and charlatans at bay.

As a conservative, I want the government the have less of a role in all our lives.  I want to see power distributed down to the most local level possible. I governing, as in life, we often get that for which we pay.  At some point voters are going to demand more. They won’t be wrong when they do, and if conservatives and Republicans are wise, they will be ready to lead the way with a well-funded policy agenda that is both robust and restrained.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @yellingstop.

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