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Editor's Corner: How much fuel tax is too much?

Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democratic leaders in the legislature have joined to raise fuel taxes as their solution to the deteriorating condition of state roads and highways.

Their proposal is complicated and would be settled into a law as a constitutional amendment if passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

The problem they have is that they are putting lipstick on a rhinoceros, hoping voters will mistake it for nothing less egregious than a mere pig greased with Chap Stick.

They are trying to sell it as a really good idea, one that might keep Democrat legislators, who are expected to vote for it, from losing their seats once the voters find they have been victims of a decades-long gas tax switcheroo.

The proposal aims to address a $59 billion backlog in deferred maintenance on state highways and $78 billion on local streets and roads, according to the Associated Press.

It includes a constitutional amendment requiring that the money be spent only on transportation projects, and it would create an inspector general to make sure money isn’t misspent.

But here’s something the scheme’s backers don’t dwell on: California already has the country’s fifth-highest fuel tax, but some of the worst roads. It’s obvious all that money hasn’t made much of a difference.

Maybe that’s why the charade of a constitutional amendment is needed.

Critics have long complained that money raised through fuel taxes has been siphoned off for other purposes. Money pumped out of a vast river of fuel taxes for other uses was supposed to have been repaid, but that hasn’t happened.

That’s especially true of truck taxes, which are supposed to mitigate the wear and tear the heavier vehicles put on the roads. But those tax moneys are hijacked as well.

Brown complains that the roads are worn out because we need more money to fix them, and he is right. But it’s also true that we’ve already had that money, but it hasn’t been used for that purpose. It has been diverted to such things as “public transportation” — including the High-Speed Rail project, but public transit, once it becomes the recipient of fuel taxes, turns into the gift that keeps on taking. What would be wrong with making public transit pay its own way?

“If the fares get too high, nobody will ride,” is the assumption. Has anybody thought that public transit might be something nobody wants at the price it needs to get in order to operate?

One of the things the scheme would do is start charging electric cars an extra $100 a year because they don’t use gasoline. What?

Isn’t the idea that electric cars are to save on gasoline. They have succeeded. Now, let’s penalize them for it.

Here’s an idea. If the backers of this hornswoggle want to earn our trust, let them first return the money that has been permanently borrowed for other purposes and spend it on roads and highways.

Ask the average taxpayer how she or he feels about that.

It would be the right thing to do. And doing the right thing doesn’t require a constitutional amendment.

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