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Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposal to cut motorists free of the gas tax, and strap our road-use costs onto the state sales tax seems, at first, helpful to no one.
Why would conservative policy encourage more gasoline waste, road congestion and deterioration, rather than less — and do so at more taxpayer expense?
Well, state gas taxes are a bane to the petroleum industry, which lobbies its public-sector allies to end those gas taxes (and to increase state speed limits, which Virginia has compliantly done). These policies encourage significantly more gas-guzzling.
Lower pump prices and higher speeds inevitably increase fuel consumption — and thus, industry profits.
But oil companies are making record profits already. And we Virginians, who are the consideration more ethically appropriate to state officials, wouldn’t benefit from socializing those petroleum profits or their cost to our public transportation grid, air quality and traffic safety budgets.
This fact is repeatedly spelled out by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, vtpi.org, which offers a highly regarded, nonpartisan encyclopedia of transportation management research.
VTPI emphasizes one thing that economists left, right and center consistently agree on: Motor fuel taxes reduce vehicle miles traveled, or VMT. Those taxes have proven a most direct, responsible way to fund transportation infrastructure, while encouraging fewer vehicle miles. Hence, they significantly decrease road repair/expansion costs, air pollution, even traffic fatalities.
“For all countries, reducing VMT reduces costs such as traffic congestion, road and parking facility costs, accident and pollution costs, helps maintain a diverse transportation system (walking, cycling and public transport), and reduces sprawl,” VTPI reports.
So why — with these very issues at hand — eliminate a gas tax that should instead be raised, and hide the cost in a blanket sales tax increase?
Why not use the intelligence of Virginians (and those traveling through) to choose excessive or conservative driving habits, and to pay appropriately for them, instead of viewing transportation as an entitlement?
Hybrid-vehicle owners could contribute their share of road maintenance by some other or added means. But to punish them, exclusively, with an extra $100 annual tax — while stripping away everyone else’s gas tax, as McDonnell proposed — benefits only the petroleum industry (which views hybrids as a threat). This tactic, again, rewards waste.
“It’s not conservative to waste stuff,” says former Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., who now heads the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University.
Inglis believes that free-market tools — like having private consumers (of fossil fuels not least) pay the true cost of their purchase/activity, instead of forcing the general public to subsidize them — could solve quite a few of our energy/environmental problems today.
But as Inglis regrets, many conservative politicians have given up their freedom to enact wise policy in order to please powerful campaign funders.
These include the petroleum and Big Energy industries and their brigade of consultants. A few of these consultants have long maintained an influential hand in Virginia politics.
Brokering policy deals and even proposing legislation, middleman consultants cultivate common ground between their private business clients (or 501-c-4 patrons) and political campaign clients.
Those politicians, because we’ve required political careers to become big-money endeavors, are pressured to stay on the good side of these potential donors. Each player benefits.
But do actual Virginians? We — not out-of-state energy interests — are the concern more appropriate to state officials.
Policies that benefit the fossil-fuel industry aren’t necessarily the same as wise policy for Virginia’s taxpayers, transportation grid, irreplaceable environment or local businesses that can’t afford political consultants.
That’s why the public sector is traditionally distinguished from the private sector. It exists to serve all, not just the most lucrative interests.
Thomas Jefferson and Plato (whose “Republic” Jefferson revered) both believed that far-seeing, disinterested statesmen could govern for the “common weal,” not just the wealthiest interests.
In a government “by the people,” we can all help this happen by encouraging elected officials — most of whom would love to do the right thing but are besieged by special interests — to enact wise policies that benefit the big picture, long term.
Meanwhile, we ordinary citizens can govern our daily habits — including personal transportation — as if the big picture, the next generations and our own actions mattered.
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