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Matthew Stokes: On the gas tax

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

After much speculation, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey last week laid out her proposal to raise gas taxes with the stated goal of improving the state’s infrastructure.  

Ivey first brought the media to a rural, Chilton County road where a dilapidated bridge served as a backdrop and an example of why the state needs more infrastructure funding. She then brought to the State Capitol many mayors from around the state – including former opponents Tommy Battle and Walt Maddox – who pledged their support for her plan.

The proposed plan would incrementally raise the gas tax by 10 cents, and is expected to generate around $300 million dollars in additional annual revenue.  That’s ambitious for a state that prides itself on a tax friendly environment, and in particular for a Republican Party that was traditionally opposed tax increases. As the Legislature prepares to take up the governor’s plan, there are three questions to pursue.

To begin, is there are a problem with the state’s infrastructure?  The answer should be obvious: yes. Our state is full of roads and bridges that are not adequate to today’s needs, and it doesn’t take a policy expert to recognize this. We need smoother roads, better shoulders alongside them, and stronger bridges.  This would make the state more attractive to business. It would save consumers money on car repairs, though that savings would certainly vary in each individual case.  Of course we know there is a problem with our existing situation; expensive studies produce empirical evidence of what already know in our own experience.

The second question is about revenue.  Do we have enough of it? The data says we don’t. It’s easy to claim that any state has enough revenue, but all of that money goes somewhere.  I’ve routinely made the case that the state can always make some marginal cuts, but the best research concludes that state funds are already pressed to the limit. A report from the Alabama Transportation Institute at the University of Alabama concluded that Alabama’s 18-cent tax on gasoline, last raised in 1992, now has the purchasing power of 11 cents. And with fuel efficiency allowing vehicles to travel more miles with fewer fill-ups, gas tax revenues get squeezed even more. 

The final question is about the plan itself.  Is this the right plan? Maybe, if they stick to their guns. I think the governor was right to settle on a ten cent increase, though I worry that it could get bargained down to an ineffective number during legislative compromises. If that happens, the political capital needed to raise taxes will have been spent.  Still, it is wise to argue for incremental increases that allow the market to adjust over time, instead of a sudden shock to the system.

The biggest concern with any tax increase is the age-old question: “Whose in charge of that money and what are they going to do with it?” Last week we got an answer.

On Monday February 25, State Senator Clyde Chambliss filed a bill that would reorganize the Alabama Legislative Joint Transportation Committee.  This committee has responsibility for overseeing the long-term plans and budget for the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT).  Chambliss has bipartisan support from Bill Poole, chief sponsor of the Governor’s plan, and Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton.

Chambliss noted that the committee has not traditionally lived up to its responsibility, and the legislation would ensure at least four meetings of the committee a year, with members removed for lapses in attendance. The legislation goes beyond typical discussions of accountability and creates a specific mechanism for carrying it out.  For legislators on the fence concerning Governor Ivey’s plan, this certainly sweetens the deal.

This could be a critical piece of legislation.  Alabamians of both parties want accountability from their government, especially where it involves a critical matter like transportation.  Ask anyone travelling through Birmingham to give an opinion on ALDOT, and you’ll be lucky if the conversation remains PG-13. Chambliss’ bill is a bold and necessary step towards ensuring the legislature is committed to accountability.  Voters want to see that their tax dollars are well spent. We rarely get silver bullets in politics, but this seems awful close. Clyde Chambliss may have just saved the Governor’s tax plan.

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

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