The debate over increasing Alabama’s gas tax has turned this state’s politics on its head.
Many Republicans in the Legislature and Republican Gov. Kay Ivey are actively promoting raising the state’s gas tax in the name of infrastructure. Meanwhile, Democrats in the Legislature and liberals like Alabama Political Reporter’s Josh Moon are speaking out against it, calling the proposal regressive.
That’s not to say all Republicans are for it. Last week in a radio interview, northeastern Alabama Rep. Tommy Hanes (R-Bryant) said to count him as a “no.”
There also seems to be a grassroots movement across the state against the tax. Along U.S. Highway 231 in the Wiregrass, arguably the most conservative part of the state, yard signs have been placed calling on lawmakers to reject a gas tax hike.
It’s one of those events in politics where the far right and far left seemingly agree on something. However, the most confusing aspect of this gas tax debate is why nobody raised the issue in the heat of last year’s election cycle.
All statewide offices were up for grabs. The gas tax question was only mentioned sparsely, and when asked about the issue, the Republican leadership in the Alabama Legislature wasn’t shy about acknowledging that a gas tax increase to improve infrastructure was not a remote policy idea, but a probability.
Yet, here we are just days before the Alabama Legislature convenes its next session, and some are pretending to be shocked that a higher gas tax is part of the conversation — especially given Alabama’s historical mismanagement of the public’s money and trust.
Some of the most active gas hike proponents, like the Association of County Commissioners of Alabama head Sonny Brasfield, have told their members to argue that the new revenue collected must be put only toward asphalt and concrete for roads and bridges, and not a dime spent elsewhere.
Most people acknowledge the highway system in Alabama is terrible. It’s not just the traffic jams plaguing the metropolitan areas, but also connecting rural areas to those urban areas. Compared to our western neighbor, Mississippi, Alabama’s highways leave much to be desired.
The public can be swayed by the evidence before their eyes. Politicians argue they do not want to raise taxes but they must, because look at how bad our roads are, might start to win over some of the public.
However, when they use the word “infrastructure” simply as a justification for unrelated projects, you might start to lose people. “Infrastructure” as defined by some lawmakers is not just roads and bridges, but waterways, broadband internet, railroads, mass transit, etc.
Enter Rep. Bill Poole (R-Tuscaloosa), a senior lawmaker and the chair of the Alabama House Ways and Means Education Committee. He has said he will sponsor an infrastructure bill to raise the gas tax, but there is the possibility the gas tax proceeds will not just be used on roads and bridges. A portion of the revenue will be used to expand the Port of Mobile.
The theory is if the state ponies up a portion of the money to finance expansion, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, will secure matching federal money, perhaps as much as a ratio of 3-to-1 for every state dollar raised.
The Port of Mobile needs it. Mobile is fortunate to be one of the few ports on the Gulf Coast with room for expansion. As it stands now, there is a bottleneck getting in and out of the Port of Mobile. Often, ships must wait hours to dock because the port can only handle one ship at a time.
There are benefits if the state aids in the port’s expansion. Given that Mobile is positioned at the junction of interstate highways 10 and 65, cargo is easily transported throughout the Southeast. Proponents argue if the port is expanded, Alabama becomes a more viable candidate for other economic development opportunities.
The problem: Selling the idea of taking money from a gas tax collected throughout the state to fund a non-road project in Mobile.
For a lot of people in Alabama, Mobile might as well be in South America. It’s so far away and out of mind, what happens in Mobile doesn’t seem relevant to a lot of people in the central and northern parts of the state.
This isn’t something new. The tribalism set by the geographic divides has plagued the state for a century.
With support somewhat tepid for increasing the gas tax, telling folks in places like Anniston, Cullman, Dothan or Hamilton they’re paying more at the pump for a maritime endeavor several hours to the south in a place many of them rarely, if ever, visit will further suffocate support.
To those serving in the Alabama Legislature who represent Mobile and Baldwin counties: Good luck if you’re pushing for gas tax money for the port. It’s going to be tough.
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