Even as I write this, the Bizarro World event of Alabama Republicans leading a charge to raise taxes is well underway. Gov. Kay Ivey’s “Rebuild Alabama Infrastructure Plan” is breezing through Goat Hill as if it were a bill to build a 30-foot wall along all our state borders and have Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Mississippi pay for it.
Who foresaw the day when state GOP leaders would get so forcefully behind a gas tax increase? There’s not even really much rending of sackcloth and beating of breasts, or whatever it is the Bible says you should do when you’re really sorry. Nope, there might be a silk suit or two unbuttoned, but make no mistake, this baby is going to be delivered soon. Maybe even before this fishwrapper hits the streets.
The gas tax bill has already cleared the House and a Senate committee without much trouble. The full Senate vote should be simply a formality. And truly, it’s been rather amazing to watch our Montgomery leaders get behind something that really needs to be done.
Yes, I know our knee-jerk reaction in Alabama is to go load Papaw’s sawed-off shotgun with rock salt and rusty nails anytime someone mentions raising taxes for silly things like education or improved infrastructure, but Gov. Ivey seems to have hit this thing at the right moment. And I have little doubt some of the sharper minds on her staff drove it home.
The average Alabamian seems to begrudgingly have accepted that after 27 years of paying the same 18 cents per gallon at the pump to fund state infrastructure, an additional 10 cents isn’t going to kill anyone. Or at least there’s a recognition that failing roads and bridges actually will kill someone.
Maybe the snappy slogans that accompanied this plan actually did penetrate the tax-hating brain stem of Alabama voters. “Roads and Bridges Won’t Fix Themselves” is as unassailable a piece of logic as has been uttered since Mr. Spock funneled a dilithium crystal’s worth of radiation in “The Wrath of Khan.” (Spoiler alert: He comes back, but seems kind of ditsy.) Indeed, roads and bridges won’t fix themselves. Who can argue that point? I guess you could point out they still won’t fix themselves even if you pour money on top of them, but perhaps I’m being too literal.
The other slogan, “Roads Make Jobs,” sounds a little like something Frankenstein might say if he ran a paving company, but we get the gist. You need good roads to get to work, or to the beach. There’s also a sly wink to the guys revving up the asphalt pavers that are about to be busier than they have in a long while.
But whatever works, right? There’s no doubt this state needs to put money into infrastructure, among other things. Perhaps this is a strong first step. I’m no more a fan of paying higher taxes than anyone else, but we’re waaay down at the bottom of most lists you could assemble concerning state taxation. We’re also waaay down at the bottom of the list on a lot of the things most other states pay for with that tax money.
Even with this 10-cent increase, Alabama will still be below average when it comes to the gas excise tax. So it’s not like we’ll suddenly be paying 52 cents per gallon in state gas taxes, which is the national average. Hopefully what we’ll get out of this is some tangible improvement in our roadways. State highways across this state are in sad shape. Fifty-year-old bridges crisscross our counties, and road conditions are said to play a role in up to a third of our roadway fatalities.
The other reality is that the 18 cents per gallon we’ve been paying has far less buying power than it did 27 years ago. So, as we’ve kept our excise tax at the same level, the amount of actual asphalt that can be purchased with that money has decreased. Inflation is a harsh mistress — just ask the pay phone.
The increase will supposedly raise about $320 million a year, and no, that can’t be thrown into the dreaded General Fund to pay for Kay Ivey to helicopter her pocketbook to the beach, should the need ever arise. ALDOT will get 67 percent of the new money, counties would get 25 percent and municipalities 8 percent. Who knows, that might even be enough for Mobile to tear out all those horrible old traffic circles in midtown that are too tight to even get a motorcycle around. Regardless, it’ll mean more local infrastructure repair.
Here in southwest Alabama, we also have a little extra incentive for supporting the gas tax — revenge. Well, actually that revenge comes in the form of being able to use about $11 million a year for the next 20 years to pay off a bond to improve the Port of Mobile. So there’s up to a $150 million bond that could be spent improving the port, including widening and deepening the channel to allow for larger vessels.
And while that might not seem like something directly affecting the everyday lives of people in our area, it is some small bit of payback for the legislators in the northern parts of our state voting in 2016 to rip off about $520 million of the $640 million in BP settlement money. Because they had the political clout, those politicians pushed the vast majority of the Deepwater Horizon settlement into the state trust fund and also to plug holes in Medicaid, leaving the part of the state actually affected by the oil spill with a pittance.
So it’s nice to see our end of the state get a little something extra out of this. That some of the shyster politicians in other parts of the state are whining about it is only icing on the cake. It still doesn’t make up for the hundreds of millions that should have been spent here, but it’s something.
I don’t know if I can ever really bring myself to feel “happy” about a new tax, but this one should do good things for our chronically poor state. I’d like to think maybe it’s even a sign our regressive tax structure could be next up, but I don’t want to be accused of huffing gas fumes.
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