Suspending the gas tax doesn’t make sense

GOP proposal is a political stunt plain and simple

WITH GAS PRICES recently soaring as a result of unscrupulous foreign oil cartels, greedy oil companies, and a bloodthirsty Russian autocrat, the Massachusetts GOP has a solution for Massachusetts drivers: let’s support these foreign and domestic troublemakers by depriving ourselves of funding to invest in better roads and bridges.

When Speaker Ron Mariano called this GOP political pandering a “stunt,” he was being polite in his phrasing. Let’s be clear: depriving Massachusetts residents of funding to fix potholes, repair aging bridges, and pave roads does no service to drivers across the Commonwealth.

But wait, you say, the GOP plan is to replenish the lost gas tax revenue from other accounts.  That makes sense only if you think it is wise to play musical chairs with taxpayer money. Think about your tax money as sitting in a public bank account.  You put money in that account by paying state and federal taxes, and you expect the state to wisely draw on that account to make investments that support or improve your quality of life. The GOP plan basically raids your bank account to give you some quick money now but does not replenish your account.  So, you are the loser, if not now then later.  The GOP just hopes you won’t pay attention later.

To be clear: unless you are replenishing the lost gas tax revenue with new funding from a source not provided by taxpayers, you are simply taking public money away from every taxpayer, regardless of whether they drive at all, a little, or a lot.  This raises an obvious equity problem: what about those taxpayers who don’t drive, or don’t drive much?  How do they get protected by this GOP largesse?

California has at least thought this issue through a bit by proposing both a rebate for drivers and free public transportation for every Californian for three months.  What is the Massachusetts GOP plan to promote mobility equity?

(That sound you heard was the soothing sound of crickets.)

Let’s think a little bit about who is harmed by high gas prices. People who drive are certainly harmed, but so, too, is every other Massachusetts resident even if they don’t own a car or drive. The price of gas gets reflected in the price of many other things – for example, the food you buy because trucks pay more at the pump, or the cost of the plumber or electrician who needs to recover higher mobility costs. These costs get borne by everyone, including the transit user, the cyclist, and the non-driver.  Where is the GOP support for these Massachusetts residents?

(That sound you just heard was crickets again.)

What is worse, a recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California shows how it is the wealthiest who benefit the most from these GOP-driven gas tax suspension stunts.There is ample evidence that shows how low-income households are disproportionately burdened by the need to own and maintain a car.  Those costs are often the second highest household cost, above food and only below the cost of housing.  The report proposed that a “more targeted approach, such as direct relief to lower-income households, could benefit those who are least able to absorb today’s increase in gas prices.”  Alas, the Massachusetts GOP has no plan to provide targeted help to the neediest.  I guess it never entered their minds.

Let’s face facts folks. The problem is not high state gas taxes.  They have not gone up since 2013.  They don’t even keep pace with inflation. The problem is unbridled corporate greed coupled with US energy insecurity that makes us all economic victims of Russian aggression and self-interested oil cartels. Why, then, would we deprive ourselves of much-needed public revenue, why would we deplete the amount of funding available for investments that will improve our lives, as a response to these unstable, unpredictable, and unmanageable global forces?  And why would we do so in a way that helps the wealthiest and not the neediest?

Meet the Author

Massachusetts needs to address our energy insecurity issues with smart, equitable, and forward-looking solutions to our addiction to fossil fuels. We won’t do that with political stunts that seek to make short-term gains without regard to long-term impacts.

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and a board member of TransitMatters.