Big and controversial things are coming this legislative session. As with any new quadrennium, the Legislature completes its potentially unpopular agenda items first so that by the time the next election cycle begins, legislators hope voters have long forgotten any past betrayals.
Last week, Republicans in the Alabama House re-elected Rep. Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) to another term as speaker. He made it clear long before his re-election that a hike in the gas tax is on the table.
McCutcheon’s Alabama Senate counterpart, Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston), shares that sentiment.
It will be one of the big proposals, other than a lottery referendum, the state will consider next year.
The idea is if by some miracle President Donald Trump and the GOP-led U.S. Senate can come together with the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives to pass an infrastructure bill, Alabama could use the gas tax to meet any of the matching requirements in funding that could come out of federal legislation.
Given that lawmakers will likely do something with a gas tax, what would that look like? There are all sorts of details to be ironed out: How will drivers of hybrid and electric vehicles pay a fair share? How will 18-wheeler trucks carrying heavy loads that do the most damage to the state roads pay their share? And so on.
But perhaps the most crucial question is: How will Montgomery divvy up revenue within the state?
Going back to the beginning of the last century, and perhaps to the end of the Civil War, Alabama has experienced regional tribalism. It’s not solely geographic, although geography plays a large part. It’s also economic and cultural.
While the rest the country looks at Alabama as a monolith — flyover-country Republican voters united by bass fishing, barbecue, college football or whatever it is they do down there — it’s a little more complicated than that.
Southwest Alabama is no stranger to this phenomenon. To some folks in Birmingham, Mobile might as well be Mexico. “Isn’t it that place near the beach? If I lived in Mobile, I would go to Gulf Shores every day!”
To be fair, there’s probably a little bit of that going the other way regarding how Mobile and Baldwin counties view the rest of Alabama. That jaunt up Interstate 65 beyond the Dolly Parton Bridge seems like forever until you get to Montgomery. And who has time for that?
If you think the spread between Mobile and the rest of Alabama is daunting now, before there was I-65 there was no clear straight shot between Mobile and Montgomery. Prior to the completion of I-65, you had to cross the Causeway and head north on a winding U.S. Highway 31 through Brewton, Evergreen and Greenville.
Or, before that, you took the old Federal Road to and from points beyond the beginning of Mobile Bay. It might have involved a steamboat, a stagecoach and then rail.
Whatever it was, if you think Mobile seems isolated from the rest of Alabama now, it once was a lot more isolated.
That separation, along with its subtler cultural and economic differences, has made the Port City somewhat of a stepchild in the eyes of the rest of Alabama. That impression is historic and deeply ingrained in the state’s collective mindset, such that even with modern modes of transit and communication it has been difficult to overcome. The state’s politics reflect this.
Which brings us back to the gas tax. Given that Alabama’s two coastal counties have been given short shrift, even as recently as being robbed of BP settlement money so the state could make ends meet, is there any reason to believe southwest Alabama will be treated fairly with the gas tax?
The Alabama Department of Transportation’s (ALDOT) ability to not intermingle politics with its road and bridge priorities leaves much to be desired. All over Alabama, from the Shoals to Mobile, local elected officials are afraid to criticize ALDOT for fear their local project will be moved further down the priority list of projects out of retribution.
If a deep state exists in Alabama government, it’s probably ALDOT — unelected bureaucrats using leverage of road and bridge construction to influence elected politicians.
Why should the good people of Mobile support a gas tax given the history of being thought of as out of sight, and therefore out of mind?
Behind the scenes, policymakers are having all kinds of discussions about how to put some constraints on gas tax revenue. One proposal suggests distribution by population.
Jefferson County, for example, is densely populated and, under this proposal, would receive the bulk of the revenue. So does that mean places like Choctaw and Wilcox counties, with their shrinking populations, remain cut off from the rest of the state?
One reasonable potential solution would be to include language requiring a portion of where revenue is collected to remain in that county. If a gas tax is a true usage tax — i.e., you’re trying to collect revenue from the people and entities that actually use the state’s highways — then money should go to improving the state’s most traveled roads.
That doesn’t necessarily address the Choctaw and Wilcox county conundrum, but it might prevent Montgomery from taking revenue generated in Baldwin County and using it for a road project in Madison County, or vice versa.
Think of it as an insurance policy against the century-old tribal politics of Alabama for our neck of the woods.