Gas Tax and Ballot Measures

Rob Zako sends word that a new ballot measure being proposed for the 2008 election would dedicate 1% of gas tax revenues to the State Police and County patrols.

Today the state gas tax is dedicated (by constitutional amendment) to exclusive use on roads. There seem to be several schools of thought around this kind of issue:

– Taxes like this are a user fee and should not be diverted to other uses.

– Taxes are a policy tool and what you tax and what you spend on don’t need to be tightly linked.

This measure of course is redefining the scope of the user fee approach to include patrolling roads in the definition.

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11 responses to “Gas Tax and Ballot Measures”

  1. This seems like a horribly bad idea. Maintaining the roads with the gas tax revenues is hard enough; trying to divert it to the law enforcement special interest will just mean less funds available for fixing potholes, striping bike lanes, etc.

    Especially if this measure does not also *raise* the gas tax.

    Why not just try our best to engineer safety into the system, thus lessening the need for such traffic enforcement positions? Why do so many people have such a fixation with expanding the police state?

  2. Well since our car driving culture makes more police and enforcment necessary, why shouldn’t drivers foot the bill for whatever portion that entails? Don’t divert the gas tax to law enforcement, raise the gas tax so drivers are paying their fair share. As it is, funds diverted from the general fund to pay for law enforcement on our roads mean that people who don’t drive are subsidizing those who do. If folks had to pay the REAL costs of their activities, we would be a much more sustainable society.

  3. raise the gas tax so drivers are paying their fair share

    In our political culture of initiative and referrendum, either raising the gas tax or redefining the scope of its use are decisions for the general electorate (yes, the legislature can raise the gas tax, but it’s virtually certain someone would get the signatures to refer it).

    So what’s the political strategy to get the voters on board to raise it?

  4. Without much political backbone the past Governor’s office set about to virtually kill the Oregon State Police. Our legislators have not been much help too. So there is much blame to go around.

    Anyone who researches the subject of what has happened to the OSP will see that some reasonable funding method must be arived at.

    I favor this approach with a second linked inititive that would increase the gas tax.

    The second inititive must however get written to where 90% of all dollars would go to creating new road and highway capacity.

  5. gas tax as a “user fee”?

    on average gas taxes, and other “user fees” contribute only ~60% of infrastructure costs (pdf — Fueling Transportation Finance: A Primer on the Gas Tax, page 4):

    Gas Tax 34.8%
    Vehicle Taxes and Fees 19.7%
    Tolls 4.4%

    Subtotal 58.9%

    Though only tolls are technically user fees. for example, i use a lot of gas driving on unimproved roads, meaning i am paying extra gas tax for road development, and maintenance of roads i do not use.

    Here is the rest of the breakdown:

    Property Taxes 4.8%
    General Fund Appropriations 15.3%
    Other Taxes and Fees 5.6%
    Investment Income and Other Receipts 5.8%
    Bond Issue Proceeds 9.5%

    Subtotal 41.1%

    Ron raises an interesting question: to what extent is the cost of funding a police force inflated due to automobile dependence? i imagine it is quite a lot.

  6. Supporting the OSP beyond their current funding is definitely needed. Driving on the Interstate it is rare that I see any police patrolling, whether State/County/City.

    However, the current state gas tax is insufficient to maintain the current roadway system, let alone expand it for future mobility needs. To stretch it even further by dedicating one percent to OSP/county patrols will just further degrade the ability of the State, counties and cities to maintain their roads.

    Two counter-proposals:
    – First, institute a fee for studded tires. Start at $20 per tire per year and increase it $5 each year thereafter. Dedicate the funding 50/50 to OSP (enforcement) and for roadway maintanence (it would seem the state & NHS are impacted most by studded tire wear, perhaps they should get the lions share?).

    – Second, raise the state gas tax. Ever popular and highly unlikely unless the public sees the benefit from such an increase. Therefore, tie the increase to specific results (maybe projects, like WA did). For example, over ten years raise the gas tax 10 cents. 50 percent for maintenance projects, 40 percent for modernization projects, 10 percent for OSP/transit/freight/rail projects. This proposal requires modifying the State’s constitution to allow gas tax funds to be spent outside the R-o-W of roads. (There are many mobility needs that are not being met by current funding).

    Yet Another Option would be for OSP/ODOT to make a one time investment in photo radar along the Interstates and state highways. The number of cameras would be less than the number of boxes to put them in so the drivers never know if they will be recorded or not. By moving the ticketing of speeding to an automated format, this would free up the OSP to do their other duties, since they are called the State Police and not the Highway Patrol like other states.

  7. “So what’s the political strategy to get the voters on board to raise it?”

    Maybe we could call it the “Support the troops” tax. Quite honestly, I believe the sense of entitlement driving in the country is beyond redemption but we have to try right? What we need is leadership rather than pandering at the state and federal level on energy issues. I think an untouchable senator from a producer state that had the nerve to apologize for accepting energy company political donations and call it “blood money” might really open some eyes. Would be political suicide in today’s environment and it would require somebody that is sensible and courageous… sorely lacking qualities these days it seems.

  8. My above comment was of course just fantasy… I agree with Ray’s general approach. Move toward a user fee system with ample public education and easy to quantify benefits from the gas tax for joe sixpack driver.

    Here is my practical solution to public education re gas tax benefits: Almost everyone ends up at a gas station eventually correct? How about as a condition of state licensure, gas stations be required to post prominently a simple breakdown of the cost of gas by %. Gas stations would want this information out because their profit is paltry compared to everyone else’s take. On the flyer the state could post what we are getting (and not getting) for our $.20/gallon (is this correct?). Make is simple, well designed and coloful…

  9. Funding the OSP with gas tax revenues is definitely the wrong way to go. I agree that the OSP is under funded, but OSP does a lot more than just patrol highways and enforce traffic laws. They have a crime lab and respond to non-traffic related issues. Gas tax revenues are already stretched to thin funding bicycle infrastructure, pedestrian amentias and transit alternatives. That is because the gas tax is an easy political target for the anti-automobile advocates to poach. The gas tax needs to be reverted back to do what it was designed to do; pay for roads and only roads. Funding for the OSP needs to come from a broader source of revenue that all Oregonians, not just motorists, contribute to.

  10. Surely OSP knows how much of its annual budget goes for patrolling state highways. That should be covered by the gas tax. Simple enough.
    If ODOT is short of funds, they should shrink their planning/engineering departments, cancel new projects and focus to keeping the roads we have fit.
    And for the sake of those of use who have to drive, ODOT should look for ways to increase passenger rail in key corridors.

  11. Having written my master’s thesis on gas tax dedication laws, I came to a few conclusions:

    (1) Almost all states spend a lot more on roads than just the gas tax revenues; many of these other funds are flexible, general funds rather than earmarked funds.

    (2) Voters very, very rarely remove or relax gas tax dedications. I think the last state to do it successfully (as of 1998 when I wrote my thesis) was in the late 1970s.

    So, if you’re looking for police funding, go after the pots of money that aren’t constitutionally dedicated. Just because we used to fund police (road safety) with gas tax money doesn’t mean that we can easily go back to that.

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