Gas tax makes no ‘cents’

Scott Frith
Government/Politics columnist

Gov. Bill Haslam has announced a wide-ranging tax proposal that would add 7 cents per gallon on gasoline and 12 cents per gallon on diesel fuel. As part of the governor’s plan, the sales tax on groceries would be lowered by one-half a percent (a 50-cent decrease on a $100 grocery bill) and the Hall income tax decreased.

Most would agree that Tennessee’s bridges need work. Although our state ranks near the top of states in highway quality, we lie near the bottom in bridge health. In fact, one study by TRIP, a transportation research and lobbying firm, found that 19 percent of Tennessee’s bridges are “structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.” Supporters of the gas tax increase say that new revenue is needed to repair bridges and fund a backlog of state road projects. Also, they argue it’s only fair that drivers (who use the roads) pay for road improvements.

That’s the problem. A gas tax isn’t fair at all.

Gas taxes are among the most regressive forms of taxation. Whether you’re a millionaire, a senior on a fixed income, or a family barely getting by every month, a gas tax increase will cost you more money. If you’re rich (or comfortably middle class), you probably won’t notice any increase. However, if your family is worried about the cash for your next fill-up at the gas station, any tax increase hits hard in the pocketbook.

Tax increases are always politically problematic, but a gas tax increase is even more treacherous. Has the Haslam administration not considered the optics of a billionaire governor (who happens to own a fuel center empire) increasing taxes on the poorest Tennesseans to pay for better roads? Even worse, Haslam’s plan decreases the Hall income tax, a tax on interest from bonds and dividends from stocks, which would inevitably benefit rich Tennesseans.

The campaign attack ads against these folks write themselves.

Of course, it’s important to remember that Gov. Haslam’s gas tax plan is only a proposal. There’s no guarantee it will ever see the light of day in Nashville. (Remember, Haslam proposed Insure Tennessee and that plan went nowhere.) Expect a lot of alternative proposals to emerge in the coming weeks.

Here’s the bottom line. Few Republican legislators fear a Democratic opponent. However, any Republican voting for a gas tax increase should worry about an anti-tax Republican primary opponent in the 2018 elections. Voting for a gas tax increase puts a bull’s-eye on every tax-hiking legislator. Campaign donations from road builders (and friends of the governor) might not be enough to ensure their re-election.

But politics aside, it just isn’t right to fund road improvements on the backs of the poorest Tennesseans while also reducing the Hall income tax, which benefits the wealthiest. Here’s hoping state leaders reject this gas tax increase and find another way to improve Tennessee’s bridges and roadways.

Say no to a gas tax increase. It doesn’t make “cents.”

Scott Frith is a local attorney.
You can visit his website at pleadthefrith.com

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