A tax by any other name

Published 7:37 pm Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Occasionally there are problems that are simply unavoidable that only have solutions that are unfavorable.   To continue to do nothing in such a case is often unthinkable.
Georgia has a transportation funding problem.  We have a huge infrastructure of roads and bridges that needs more money, lots of it, just to maintain what we have.  No one really disagrees anymore that this is a real and present danger to this state’s continued growth.
The decline in the price of gas has been wonderful for most consumers but has presented additional problems for the state as it is resulting in a reduction in the sales tax that funds much of the transportation budget.  Add the additional challenges of automobiles that are getting more fuel efficient and the problem only gets bigger.
Georgia has tried in the past few years to gather public support for additional revenue for transportation.  The vote a couple of years ago to increase sales taxes to fund transportation, commonly known as T-SPLOST, failed miserably in nine out of twelve regions.
This leads to one of the real issues in dealing with a long range solution to this issue; no one wants a tax increase.  The public has already indicated that in their regional votes with T-SPLOST.  They want the improvements to their roads but they don’t want to pay for them.
The politicians don’t want a tax increase for two reasons.  One is they have to run for reelection and two, many have signed a pledge to forego any taxes for almost any reason.
As a side bar, I always refused to sign the no tax pledge because I didn’t want to bind myself to decisions about problems that perhaps didn’t even exist at the time.  It’s hard to take a vote before you know the facts.
What happens when you have a real problem (transportation funding) that only has a bad solution (additional taxes)?
You wind up doing some crazy things that you would never consider in a more perfect world.
House Bill 170, recently introduced in the Georgia General Assembly seeks to address the state’s transportation needs by changing the sales tax on gasoline to an excise tax.  Technically it is not a tax increase.
While I don’t pretend to be an expert on the bill, there are concerns that locally our cities, counties and school boards could be negatively impacted by this bill.  The revenues now collected by local governments due to LOST, SPLOST and E-SPLOST taxes on gasoline would expire once those programs end.
At that point, those funds would be replaced by a 3 cents per gallon excise tax per gallon.  Additionally, the local citizens could vote an additional 3 cents per gallon on themselves provided it was dedicated strictly to local transportation needs.
This may indeed be the solution to all our problems.  I am not criticizing the bill while offering no solution of my own.
However, in the rush to develop a revenue increase that allows them to state they did not vote for a new tax, legislators run the even greater risk of a blow to their integrity.
To push the responsibility for the state’s problem down to the local level so city, county and school officials have to raise taxes just doesn’t smell right.  Perhaps it is time to just level with the people.  We have a problem that can only be solved by additional taxes.
Nobody likes this answer.  Some, maybe many, might be defeated by advocating a straightforward solution.
But in the end, there is no other way around this fact; a tax by any other name is still a tax.

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