Texas Politics

Perry’s frozen gas tax hurts transportation, schools



Outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Perry’s continuing response to calls to raise the state’s gas tax has truly been “My Way or The Highway.”

And “My Way” prevailed over “The Highway” – at least, if you’re for highways built without tolls or taxpayer debt.

Perry’s continuing stand against new taxes may be for political reasons – to appeal to the anti-tax fervor of the Tea Party type voters. Or it may be for policy reasons; he may really prefer to have highways built with tolls or bond debt.

But this is certainly a continuing departure from the “Pay As You Go” slogan under which Texas government operated for several decades – until Republicans George W. Bush took over as governor in 1995, followed by Perry in 2000.

It appears that Perry’s successor as governor, Republican Greg Abbott, has the same attitude. He is calling for an additional $4 billion a year for highways, “without raising taxes, fees or tolls.”

How? By shifting money that would – or at least could — be spent on other things, and putting it into road construction and maintenance.

The tax began in 1923 at one cent per gallon. It reached a nickel a gallon in 1955, under conservative Democratic Gov. Allan Shivers, after business interests mounted a “Good Roads” campaign. Gas then was about 20 cents a gallon.

Three fourths of the gas tax income went to transportation, and one fourth to public schools.

Over the next couple of decades, the Texas highway system became known as the best in the nation.

In about 1977 came the crossover: the motor fuels tax by itself no longer was able to pay all the cost for building and maintaining highways. So legislators began dipping into the General Revenue Fund.

But with inflation gradually reducing the buying power of the tax, and with increasing population, legislators added another nickel in 1984, to bring it to 10 cents a gallon, while Democrat Mark White was governor. It went up again in 1987, to 15 cents, while Republican Bill Clements was governor.

Four years later in 1991, under Democratic Gov. Ann Richards, another nickel was added, making the tax 20 cents. It has remained frozen there since.

With inflation, it would take 35 cents a gallon today to produce the same buying power as 20 cents in 1991.

Put another way, what was 20 cents of buying power in 1991 would only be 11.5 cents today.

And in addition, initially under pressure from the federal government, cars today are getting significantly more miles per gallon. So fewer on a taxes are produced per mile traveled.

In 2001, two House members – Democrat Clyde Alexander of Athens and Republican Kip Averitt of Waco – had a bill to add another nickel, to 25 cents. But Perry threatened to veto it, and it went nowhere.

Had it been added then, in the next six years there would have been about $3 billion more for transportation, and about threefourths of a billion for public schools.

Mindful of that eroding financial support for transportation, state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who chaired the Transportation Committee, tried again in 2007 for a tax hike.

But he also wanted to index the tax, to the percentage annual increase in highway construction costs, not to exceed 4.5 percent in any one year. That would have been a mild 1.7 cents per gallon the first year – but would have produced an estimated $384 million for roads and schools.

Perry’s veto threat kept it from ever reaching his desk. Many lawmakers are gun-shy about getting a tax increase vote on their record, especially if the roads and schools it’s supposed to help never get the money.

This would be a perfect time to resurrect Carona’s proposal, while gas prices are at their lowest in six years.

The additional taxes wouldn’t even be noticed by most drivers at the pump, but would be by road builders and school superintendents.

The alternative is to keep passing along to our kids and grandkids the cost for road use, including paying tolls, paying off state road debt, and sitting in stalled traffic. • • •

One Person Wants to Hear Him Talk. . . . The Hill, which covers Congress and the federal government, decided to add up how much time each of the 435 House members and 100 senators spent on floor speeches.

As you might imagine, a Texan was Number One – by a big margin. The prize for long-windedness went to very conservative Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler, with 29 hours of addressing other representatives.

That was more than triple the time of the runnerup, Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa, with nine hours.

DAVE MCNEELY is a political columnist. You may contact him at davemcneely111@ gmail or (512)458 2963.

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