Texas State Rep. Drew Darby told a friendly crowd of road builders that he’ll continue to push for a gas tax hike to help shore-up the State’s road funding shortfalls at yesterday’s San Antonio Mobility Coalition (SAMCo) luncheon. Darby supported a bill to capture half of the vehicle sales tax receipts, raise the gas tax 10 cents a gallon, and double vehicle registration fees during the legislative session last year. So his support of gas tax hikes are well known. But what makes his comments to SAMCo so newsworthy is his open mockery of those who have a problem with ending the raid of gas taxes for non-road purposes.
The biggest diversion of gas tax goes to public education by constitutional amendment (twenty-five percent). The next goes to the Department of Public Safety (DPS) which gets roughly five percent. The constitution does say the gas tax can go to policing state highways, but that’s a small amount of the DPS budget. The Texas legislature has raided additional sums to the tune of billions over the last several decades for anything from computers in the Comptroller’s office to enhancing employee benefits in the Attorney General’s office. Taxpayers want accountability for those funds and restitution before any tax hikes are contemplated.
Guys like Darby mock such truth in budgeting and truth in taxation. He might of changed his tune if he were in front of his local tea party instead of in a room full of highway builders who also happen to be generous campaign donors. Darby’s gas tax lobbying couldn’t have come at a worse time for taxpayers. Gas prices have stayed well over $3 a gallon even in the winter months (when prices are generally lower) and have been on a steady rise for weeks. The prices will continue to rise as we approach the summer driving season.
On top of the gas tax diversions, vehicle sales tax which brings in $3.3 billion a year, is also being dumped into general revenue to fund general government (primarily public education and Medicaid) rather than funding roads. So the shortfalls could be solved by simply allocating the taxes collected on gas and vehicles to highways without the need for any tax hikes.
There has been no support for a gas tax hike for the last decade when lawmakers first started to take note that gas tax was no longer keeping pace with road needs. They’ve turned to toll roads and massive borrowing as a get out of jail free card, but that one trick pony is pretty well used up as the state has maxed out its credit card and all the toll viable roads have already been built. But rather than pull the plug on loser toll projects, lawmakers have turned to subsidizing toll projects that can’t pay for themselves propping up toll projects with gas taxes, Texas Mobility Funds, general obligation bonds, and even local property and sales taxes in a double, triple, and/or quadruple tax scheme.
Darby sits on the House Appropriations Committee so he and his fellow budget writers want to increase taxes to make up for the shortfalls rather than discipline the use of the taxes we already send to Austin or cut spending. However, when you do the math, their solution isn’t politically viable. TxDOT is short $4 billion a year in road funds. They’d have to raise the gas tax over 50 cents a gallon, more than double annual vehicle registration fees, or worse to come up $4 billion using tax hikes. There isn’t a Republican or Democrat willing to commit such political suicide.
So the tax hike crowd cannot possibly expect to fix the road funding shortfall with tax hikes alone. They MUST capture a huge chunk of existing revenue in order to get to $4 billion. They did punt part of this decision to voters with a proposed amendment to the constitution that would divert roughly $1 billion from the Rainy Day Fund (comprised of oil & gas severance tax) to non-toll highways, which will appear on the ballot in November. But even this only solves about one quarter of the problem.
If weary consumers who are already struggling to keep gas in their tanks due to escalating prices that also increase the cost of everything they buy cannot take the thought of higher transportation costs (be it tolls, gas tax or other tax hikes), then they need to make their voices heard loud and clear to their representatives. Lawmakers need to exercise some fiscal discipline and end the diversions of all our road taxes and fix the highway funding shortfall without adding to the tax burden.