Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Raising the Gas Tax And Living To Tell About It

I realize that in politics, it is forever some indeterminate year between 1982 and 1994 (pardons! litmus tests! owls versus jobs!), and therefore noone is allowed to raise the gas tax 18-30 years after this seminal era in American history. But the problem with the gas tax hike in the 1993 wasn't the specific tax that was raised, it was that no one saw the connection between the tax hike and any tangible benefit. People thought Clinton raised taxes, basically, to reduce the deficit and do nothing else. Sure, the '93 budget did some things liberals wanted, like expanding the EITC, but the deal was largely sold as a deficit reduction package.

Compare this experience to Washington State's gas tax hike in 2005. The tax increase was sold as a way of keeping gas taxes in line with inflation. The money went directly to pay for specific road improvements. Local officials blanketed TV, radio, and smalltown newspapers with op-eds and editorial interviews pointing out the tangible improvements in road safety, traffic congestion, and construction employment that the new revenues would bring. An initiative to repeal the tax increase was soundly defeated, and in 2006 state Democrats expanded their majority in the Senate.

Passing tax increases is hard, but it's less difficult if you can point to goodies that everyone will get to use as a consequence of the tax increase. This is one of those cases where communications are genuinely a big part of the issue. Creating a new bill for everyone to pay and that is hard to administrate doesn't help anyone.

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