Whether you like it or not we’re going to see a gas tax hike in 2019 in Alabama.
It’s the first year of a new quadrennium. This is the time when previous state legislatures have passed unpopular initiatives.
When looking at the big-ticket items — lottery, prison reform, ethics and, of course, gas tax — the gas tax is one that seems to be receiving the most immediate attention.
Consider this: The current 18-cents-a-gallon state gas tax has remained unchanged since 1992. Leadership in both the GOP-led State House and Senate have said a hike is long overdue and are signaling movement on it in the upcoming session in March.
It’s inevitable something will happen.
Nobody wants their taxes raised. However, the window for opposing the gas tax hike closed with the results of the 2018 elections. Most candidates for office campaigned on improving infrastructure. Opponents of the gas tax should have made their voices heard then.
Opponents simply missed their opportunity — challenging the gas tax increase this legislative session will not work. The battle has already been decided. It might not have been at the forefront of the 2018 election cycle, but it wasn’t totally ignored.
As a conservative, I am largely skeptical of tax increases, but since this increase appears inevitable, it behooves conservatives to consider what the state will get from the revenue raised.
The big questions are: 1) where the Legislature will direct the funds; 2) how the funds will actually be spent; and 3) how the state will hold the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) accountable.
Rather than fighting the lost battle of the tax increase itself, these questions are where conservatives should direct their focus.
On the first question — where the funding will go: One proposal would have the funds remain where the gas tax is collected. Other recommendations divvy up the revenue by population. Given that the gas tax is essentially a usage tax, it would make sense for some percentage of these revenues to stay where they are collected.
On the second question — how the funds will be spent: It is vital for policymakers to identify the most urgent road projects before Gov. Kay Ivey signs any new gas tax into law. It is also crucial the money not be diverted to nontransportation projects. That is, the Legislature must include some kind of language in the ultimate bill that prohibits the fruits of this tax from ending up in coffers unrelated to transportation.
With the state’s roads in such disrepair, does it make sense that this revenue could unwittingly end up funding education, health, and/or Dauphin Island western-end beach restoration?
On the third question — how the state can hold ALDOT accountable: The agency has a notorious track record of misallocating funds for unneeded road projects. Over the last few decades, politics and corruption have plagued the agency. This gas tax bill is an opportunity for the Legislature to expand its oversight of ALDOT.
Local and state elected leaders are too terrified to criticize ALDOT publicly. Their hometown road projects might somehow get mired in decades of bureaucracy if they upset the wrong well-placed bureaucrat.
Let us not forget that gas taxes are not a burden sustained merely by Alabamians. Out-of-state drivers who travel through the state and fill up their gas tanks will be subject to the Alabama gas tax. This is one tax that isn’t completely on the shoulders of Alabamians.
Another option for the Legislature to consider is granting individual counties the ability to raise their own gas taxes. Municipalities have that ability. This option would absolve the lawmakers of any political fallout, but it would remove the Legislature’s power to prioritize road projects.
Allowing counties to levy and collect gas tax revenue will also present transparency challenges for the taxpayer. Counties in Alabama don’t have the best track record. A history of mismanaging funds does not inspire confidence that this time around the counties will ethically handle the gas tax.
Remember the Jefferson County sewer system debacle that was rife with corruption and resulted in one of the largest bankruptcies in American history?
The potential for divisions based on geography is another obstacle, given the unofficial split between the North and South Alabama delegations.
The Alabama Legislature is under one-party rule, but there is a degree of tribalism. North Alabama and South Alabama legislators are voting based more on their regional interests than their ideological impulses.
We learned this the hard way following the mishandling of the BP oil spill settlement, which was used by the state for other things besides its intended purpose, which was to help coastal areas of Alabama afflicted by the spill.
Finally, one thing to watch for are legislators who find religion on taxation. While there is a current consensus among the Republican caucus that the gas tax is a go, those legislators whose pet projects will not receive coveted gas tax revenues will be the most likely to step out of line. Look out for legislators who suddenly fashion ideological arguments about the harms of gas increases and point to Grover Norquist’s tax increase pledge.
It means they did not get what they wanted out of the gas tax bill.