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The state gas tax and the shameful politics of fear

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In the statewide political battle surrounding a tax hike on gasoline, the Republicans picked the easier side in the debate — affordability — while the House Democrats have to defend a more complex position: that the tax is a better mechanism to raise needed revenue for a host of reasons, none of which can be boiled down into a politically palatable sound bite.

But take a moment to inspect the issue. The first question is: Is the additional revenue the proposed gas tax would raise really needed?

The Vermont House approved a bill that would raise gasoline taxes by 4 cents per gallon (to 24 cents) and by 6 cents per gallon on diesel fuel (to 32 cents per gallon). The increased taxes would generate $26 million that would be used to leverage more than $100 million in federal highway funds — a bump in transportation funding approved by the U.S. Congress and Bush in this era of burgeoning deficits. (If you don’t raise the needed state match, you lose out on the federal dole.)

Both sides of the political aisle agree that it is critical the state get the maximum amount of federal funding. To generate the needed $26 million, however, the Senate and Gov. James Douglas favor a mix of fees and cuts in other programs. The Senate proposal includes raising $13 million in motor-vehicle related fees; borrowing $4.5 million in weatherization funds; taking $500,000 from the Reach Up program (a program directed at helping poor families break the cycle of poverty); and deferring payments on some road projects.

Supporters of this latter plan argue that gasoline prices are high enough and pushing the fuel prices higher will put too great a hardship on the average Vermont resident. They cite no facts, just a ‘gut’ feeling.

Supporters of the gas tax rely on rational thinking, including:

• The gas tax would be shared by out-of-state visitors. With a fee-based system, Vermonters pay it all.

• The $13 million in fees on vehicles the governor would impose will be paid annually by every state resident and will hit Vermont’s trucking industry the hardest, while out-of-state truckers would pay no additional fees. Furthermore, fees hit every vehicle owner no matter how much one drives. (An older person who rarely drives, pays the same as younger drivers circling the town or shoppers running up to Burlington and back.)

• Cutting $500,000 from the Reach-Up program, which helps needy Vermonters find work, and ‘borrowing’ $4.5 million from the state’s weatherization effort, hurt initiatives that have excellent long-term benefits. What we cut in those two programs will cost the state more down the road. No one would ever suggest this is a good long-term strategy, supporters are just hoping residents will ignore that it’s not a good short-term strategy either.

Politics is motivating the opposition. Republican Gov. Douglas, and Senate Pro Temp Peter Welch, a Democrat running for Rep. Bernie Sanders’ congressional seat, are both afraid of the voters’ reaction.

But let’s consider, rationally, the impact of the tax on the average family. If the gasoline tax were increased four cents a gallon, and if the average family goes through a tank of gasoline per week (let’s say a large tank at 20 gallons), that’s roughly 80 cents a week — or one Coke in a soda machine, or one and half candy-bars, or a bag of chips with one lunch per week. If a family goes through two tanks of gasoline per week, then the cost is $1.60 — or skipping two Cokes — per week.

That’s a hardship? That’s what the Republicans are calling unaffordable? That’s the ‘sacrifice’ they don’t want to impose?

No, that’s pure politics. That’s the fear that the opposition party will take an issue — raising taxes, no matter how modest and rational a proposal it is — and beat up the other party as much as possible with dire-sounding diatribes that sucker in those Vermonters who respond emotionally to the issues without thinking them through. (You can hear the radio and tv commercials now: “That Democrat, so and so, he raised your gasoline taxes, taking your hard-earned money out of YOUR pockets; and what’s he gonna doing with it? Why, he’ll spend it on wasteful government programs. Let’s kick that tax-and-spend Democrat out of office, and put those hard-earned dollars back to your wallet. Vote Republican, we’re ir-respon … I mean, responsible.�) Ludicrous, but it is as shameful as it is true. Republicans, since Ronald Reagan first championed tax cuts to get elected, have ruthlessly exploited the issue to their great advantage and to the nation’s peril.

(There are exceptions. When Republican Gov. Dick Snelling needed to reverse a downward spiral in state finances, he took the bull by the horns, got Democrats and Republicans on board, and he raised taxes for a couple of years until the state coffers were full again.)

Where is the political courage to do the same today? The answer is in the Democratically-controlled House. Democrats there are pointing out the political nature of the opposition, and imploring our state’s leaders to act boldly.

“That’s what leadership is,� Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln, told a local breakfast gathering last week, “making tough choices and facing the consequences.� Unfortunately, the governor and too many Democrats in the Senate would rather succumb to the politics of fear.

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