CT News Junkie | OP-ED | On the Gas Tax, Murphy Gets It Half Right

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OP-ED | On the Gas Tax, Murphy Gets It Half Right

by | Jan 30, 2015 5:30am
() Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Business, Economic Development, Federal Budget, Opinion, Transportation

NancyOnNorwalk.com photo

Walk Bridge in Norwalk on the Metro-North line


Sen. Chris Murphy, who has made a name for himself lately in the field of foreign policy, has stumbled onto a good domestic policy idea —  sort of.

Actually, Murphy has been pushing the idea for some time. He proposed increasing the federal gasoline tax last year, along with Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, to shore up the federal highway trust fund and address critical infrastructure needs.

Before we even get to the mechanics of the proposed tax increase, let’s look at whether additional funding for infrastructure is needed. On that question, there can be no dispute. Indeed, one need look no further than a devastating 60 Minutes piece broadcast last November.

All you have to do is look around. Here in Connecticut —  whose roads by the way have been rated the worst in the nation in a recent White House report —  potholes, rusted bridges and decrepit rail infrastructure are the order of the day.

The report found that 41 percent of Connecticut’s roads are in poor condition and that 35 percent of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The latter statistic ties us for sixth worst with rural coal-mining backwater West Virginia. A report two years ago by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that 73 percent of Connecticut’s roads could be classified as poor or mediocre.

On the national level, the 60 Minutes report noted that nearly 70,000 bridges in America — one out of every nine — is now considered to be structurally deficient. If this madness continues, the deadly collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis in 2007 could turn out to be the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Now we come to the merits of increasing the gasoline tax itself, which has traditionally been the primary source of money for the federal highway transportation fund, which then doles out money to the states to fix roads, bridges, and other critical infrastructure. That fund, Murphy says, “will begin to run dry in July, likely halting the construction of any new transportation projects without action from Congress.”

First of all, I do not favor increasing the state gas tax. It’s already among the highest in the nation. And the state tax structure — which includes the aptly named Gross Receipts Tax that is otherwise known as the “hidden tax” — is imposed on most petroleum products at the wholesale level and then passed on to retailers, who of course pass it on to you and me at the bottom of the food chain.

Murphy’s proposal would raise the federal gas tax by 12 cents over two years. That’s about what it would be in real dollars since the last time the tax was increased in 1993. And as vehicles have become more fuel-efficient, revenue from the tax has decreased as needs have soared.

Where Murphy and I part ways is his insistence that the tax be indexed to inflation. Murphy is no coward, but he using a tactic often employed by craven politicians who want to raise taxes regularly but don’t want to have to vote for it regularly. I have no problem with raising the gas tax from time to time, but if elected officials want to do so, then they should have the guts to vote for it. Otherwise, when their constituents complain about a gas tax rise, legislators can just shrug and say, “There’s nothing I could do about it. It’s automatic.” Taxpayers in Massachusetts got wise to that last year, when they voted 53-47 percent to repeal automatic gas tax increases passed by lawmakers on Beacon Hill. 

Four years ago, I spent two weeks in South Korea. Among many other differences, I noticed immediately how the trains, roads, bridges, and tunnels were in far superior shape to anything I’d seen in the United States. And it should come as no surprise. As 60 Minutes reported, our public spending on infrastructure is at its lowest level since 1947. And the U.S., which used to have the finest infrastructure in the world, is now ranked 16th, according to the World Economic Forum.

You’d expect the labor unions to embrace the idea of higher spending on infrastructure. But even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and major corporations like Caterpillar and GE have acknowledged that poor infrastructure harms our global competitiveness. So increasing the gas tax and putting people to work might even help our economy.

Things have gotten so bad that I even agree with AFL-CIO union boss Richard Trumpka, who said, “If business and labor can come before you united on this issue —  and we are united on this issue despite our sharp disagreements on a variety of other matters —  I think that should tell everybody something and tell it very loudly.”

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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(34) Archived Comments

posted by: Michele | January 30, 2015  7:38am

I can’t believe I support increasing any taxes, but increasing the federal gasoline tax makes sense. It should be done slowly and gradually, though. I agree that increases should not be automatic. The condition of infrastructure in the United States is shameful. When President Obama announced “shovel ready” project funding (oh how long ago that was), I got excited thinking about all of the projects that could be accomplished around the nation (and saw almost none—where did that money go???). It is time for us as a people to not only care about the safety and integrity of infrastructure, but to take a little pride in our country. I do, however, insist on open bidding and oversight.

posted by: MyOpinion | January 30, 2015  10:44am

Gas Tax - Yes, but only if the funds are locked to the Transportation Fund.  The Gov’t always has a way of moving money to other worthless spending accounts.

posted by: joemanc | January 30, 2015  1:11pm

I’m not a fan of tolls, but, having recently been to Florida where tolls seem to be literally everywhere, I noticed something. They have 4, 5 and 6 lane highways, and they all seem to be in good condition. The airports look great. Seems to me they take their toll money and actually spend it on money. So what if we add tolls, and lower the gas tax to offset the increase in fuel efficient cars?

posted by: JamesBronsdon | January 30, 2015  1:28pm

Why the need to insult West Virginia? “Backwater?” “Almost Heaven,” according to John Denver. How different really from the Berkshires where you live, Terry.  Jacob’s Pillow crowd aside.

posted by: Terry Cowgill | January 30, 2015  2:39pm

Terry Cowgill

James, I do live in CT but work in the Berkshires.

By virtually any measure, West Virginia has lower median incomes, lower education levels—and yes, lower taxes. The only way it survived all those years was the endless federal pork brought in by the late Sen. Robert Byrd.

A friend who lived there told me West Virginia has the lowest percentage of paved roads in the nation. I daresay we should not be proud to be compared to West Virginia when it comes to infrastructure or almost anything else.

posted by: JamesBronsdon | January 30, 2015  3:03pm

And if we exclude Fairfield County how do we compare on income to West Virginia? If WV had a NYC on its doorstep, perhaps it’d be roughly equivalent in income to CT. And I’d bet that if we looked at the trend over 50 years, WV is closing the gap in education levels. I guess the point of your article is that we’re heading the wrong way on infrastructure, and I don’t disagree with that. But I don’t know that comparison of an urbanized state like CT to a largely rural state like WV is apposite.  WV surely has charms of its own that aren’t fairly reflected by a term like “backwater.”

posted by: art vandelay | January 30, 2015  4:11pm

art vandelay

Before we start raising taxes or implementing tolls, let’s work with what we have.  Transferring the gas & gross receipts taxes back into the transportation fund would be a good first start. After a year calculate how much is in the fund and proceed accordingly.  I’m sure there will be enough to fund most of Malloy’s transportation improvements. At the same time let’s transfer all lottery & slot revenue back to education where it was originally intended. It would provide much needed local property tax relief.  No need for new taxes, higher fees or tolls.

posted by: LongJohn47 | January 30, 2015  5:39pm

Art—as the Courant reported last summer, the total net transfer of Special Transportation funds to the General Fund was $43 million in the first 3.5 years of the Malloy Administration out of nearly $4 billion raised.  About 1%.

The problem isn’t that someone is stealing the money.  The problem is that we think we can get what we want (good roads, for example) without truly paying for them.

You don’t like taxes.  Neither do I.  But I understand that paying taxes is the cost of having a civilized country to live in (and believe me, I’ve lived in some that weren’t and know the difference)

posted by: CtGasGuy | January 31, 2015  12:14pm

All need to remember that it is not what goes into the General Fund now but the $1.5 BILLION dollars that already went into the General Fund.  You will never be able to fund transportation projects on an annual basis so a lock box is the only way to do this and YES, it must be a real lock bock and it CAN be done.  How they do it will show if legislators are serious or just playing us for fools.

posted by: LongJohn47 | January 31, 2015  2:59pm

CTgasGuy—what $1.5 billion?  please explain.  and do you think that’s enough to fix our transportation problems?  the New Haven line alone needs $3.6 billion. 

a lock box, while necessary, isn’t the answer.  more revenue is, and you can pick your poison—taxes or tolls.

posted by: CtGasGuy | January 31, 2015  3:14pm

First, the $1.5 billion is the amount of money that was ALREADY generated in tax revenue but rather than be put into a lockbox and invested say at 3%annually they spent it on non-road and bridge work these are facts directly from the state.  Second, do we need more revenue YES but if we saved and invested that $1.5 BILLION with a B at say 3%I think that gets us another $45 million WITHOUT more taxes.  The only way your ever going to get the revenue is for charging those that use our roadways and railways.  After all they are using them - they should pay for them.  Issue according to DOT 53% of traffic on our roads today is out of state commuters and they do not buy gas here.  Why to expensive due to the Gas Tax and the state is so small they can simply bypass and buy before or after our state.  So the logical answer is tolls.  Not the old tolls but new gateway system using EZ Pass.  But get more revenue is like giving unlimited candy to a child and then complain when that child eats the candy and gets fat.  LOCKBOX ONLY FROM NOW ON!!! Revenue can only be used to intended purpose or short terms investments to increase amount of revenue.  CT. does have a very successful track record on the investment side of things.

posted by: LongJohn47 | January 31, 2015  4:14pm

CTGasGuy—I’m glad we agree on tolls, though rather than “gateway” (at the entrance to the state, e.g, Greenwich and New London) I’d argue we needs EZpass all along the interstates to make hopping on an off pointless.

Also agree totally with your point about those who use the service should pay for it.  In that regard, however, commuters on the New Haven line already pay the highest percentage of total cost in the nation—73%.  Compare that with the Long Island Railroad, for example, where riders there only pay 49%.  That’s a huge difference.  Shore Line East, on the other hand, is very heavily subsidized.

Now, let’s talk about the $1.5 billion.  Still not sure where you get the number but let’s assume it’s accurate.  The Special Transportation Fund supports rail as well as roads, pays salaries at ConnDOT, and also pays some of the cost of the DMV.  All transportation-related, all needing funding from somewhere. 

And at no time in the past four years have we had any extra money lying around ready for investing—long or short term—so that $1.5 billion would have been put to use somewhere, if only to keep tax increases down (yes, I know there was a huge tax increase in 2011.  it could have been bigger).

So to sum up: tolls—yes:  lockbox—sure, why not?  easy answers—none in sight.

posted by: SocialButterfly | January 31, 2015  7:58pm

If Murphy got finally got it half right, then he’s making progress.

posted by: cttruck | February 1, 2015  8:48am

I don’t like the term “lock-box”.  Locks can be opened.  The image I prefer is “pipeline”.  All the transportation generated revenue goes in one end and all the transportation expenses come out of the other end.  No valves, no shunts, no leaks, no diversions.  The only way to do that is to amend the state Constitution.

posted by: UpsideDown | February 1, 2015  1:14pm

The idea of raising additional revenue at least in CT for transportation infrastructure is a bogus claim. There are 6 other states in the US with $20 to $22 billion budgets which are similar in size to that of CT.  All 6 of these states are much larger than CT in geography.  These 6 states have populations 1.5 to 2x that of CT.  They have 3 to 5 times the road miles to maintain. So the question is, what are these 6 states doing to get more bang from the taxpayer buck? Is it an efficiency problem in CT? I would wager yes starting with overhead costs.

posted by: robn | February 1, 2015  2:02pm

CT has been a perpetual donor state for the past three decades thanks to our congressional delegation which is satisfied with table scraps while middle America walks away with federal tax dollars. The money is already there…its just that our delegation is giving it away.

posted by: LongJohn47 | February 1, 2015  2:24pm

UD—interesting.  please tell us what states you’re talking about.  where do you get your data in terms of their road infrastructure?

posted by: art vandelay | February 1, 2015  3:02pm

art vandelay

@robn,  What Connecticut lacks are Senators who know how to bring home the pork. Senators Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Ted Kennedy from Massachusetts were pros. A large number of federal buildings & roads in West Virginia are dedicated to Byrd.  Kennedy was instrumental in bringing massive amounts of federal dollars for the Big Dig.  Senators Blumenthal & Murphy are rank amateurs compared to these two giants. Connecticut is lucky to receive 65 cents for every dollar Connecticut taxpayers contributed. Other states do much better.

posted by: art vandelay | February 1, 2015  3:12pm

art vandelay

My guess is when the dust settles, Connecticut will institute the largest gas tax in state history and tolls will also be constructed at every boarder.  All money generated will be placed into the general fund to erase Malloy’s massive deficit.  Our roads and railroad will still be a mess.

posted by: LongJohn47 | February 1, 2015  3:16pm

robn—it’s true that we have always gotten less money back from the Feds than we send to them.  and if congress were able to pass an infrastructure bill, we might have something to work with. 

unfortunately, that’s not going to happen.  they can’t even agree on a highway bill, much less money to invest in rail.

and by the way, we own the rail line from Greenwich to New Haven, which means that the bridges, tracks, overhead catenary, stations—everything—belongs to CT and is our responsibility to maintain and improve.  the estimated investment needed just for this is $3.6 billion, and it isn’t coming from D.C.

posted by: art vandelay | February 1, 2015  3:25pm

art vandelay

@LongJohn47,  I’ll bet the 6 states UpsideDown mention were right to work states that are not controlled by powerful unions.  Connecticut taxpayers are held hostage by prevailing wage & Davis/Bacon.  In New York City, the 8th Ave Subway was built in 2 years and under budget.  Most of the work was done by hand with the help of primitive bulldozers & shovels.  It was a non union job. The current 2nd Ave Subway project started in 2007 and is not scheduled to be completed until 2016. Keep in mind that the 2nd Ave Subway is being constructed with the latest and greatest methods and union personnel.

posted by: LongJohn47 | February 1, 2015  3:49pm

Art—you’re being more than a little unfair to Blumenthal and Murphy.  Byrd served 51 years in the Senate (plus six in the House), and Kennedy was there for almost as long, so both had massive seniority and the power that comes with it.  In addition, both served when “earmarks” were the order of the day, which is no longer the case.

If you want to blame someone, look at Dodd and Lieberman (30 and 24 years in the Senate, respectively).  They clearly came up short in the home state pork contest.

posted by: robn | February 1, 2015  4:48pm

LJ47,

You keep referring to the same Hartford Courant article; I assume this one?

http://tinyurl.com/mp7arrw

One month later The Mirror did a profoundly more informative and detailed story about the same thing that boils down to one quote,“It’s all very frustrating and confusing for the average person. But they know they don’t see the work being done.”

http://tinyurl.com/ohn26qk

posted by: art vandelay | February 1, 2015  5:16pm

art vandelay

@LongJohn47,
Fair enough.

posted by: SocialButterfly | February 1, 2015  5:33pm

Blumenthal and Murphy are only good at getting themselves reelected to office but deliver nothing to getting massive Federal money to cope with our decaying roads, railways and bridges. They are good at political posturing on all issues but their act always ends with no results for Connecticut’s crucial needs.

posted by: LongJohn47 | February 1, 2015  5:50pm

robn—that’s the one.  thanks for providing the link.  I haven’t read the second article yet, but I think the basic point still remains—transfers go on all the time among accounts, but when you net everything out the overall impact is really minimal.

I agree it’s incredibly confusing, and until this summer when I inquired directly with House staff during a campaign I was involved in (not as the candidate) I also believed the common myth—that the Special Transportation Fund was regularly raided to avoid raising general taxes. 

It’s simply not true, but “lots of people believe it” (to quote Tom Foley) and that perception makes it more difficult for people to face reality and make some tough decisions.

posted by: LongJohn47 | February 2, 2015  7:45am

SBF—once again you’ve got it wrong.  Murphy and Blumenthal and Himes just brought federal dollars to help replace the Walk Bridge on the New Haven Line.

http://www.murphy.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/murphy-blumenthal-malloy-ct-delegation-announce-federal-funding-to-help-replace-the-walk-bridge-and-improve-reliability-along-the-new-haven-line

posted by: SocialButterfly | February 2, 2015  10:05am

@MyOpinion: You are completely correct. Malloy has made a science of moving money around. It won him the election.

posted by: CtGasGuy | February 2, 2015  12:23pm

LongJohn47 - If a tax is put in place for a specific purpose and then all of that tax revenue is not used for that purpose - that is a raid!

That allows those in the legislature at that time to NOT make the hard decisions and is called kicking the can down the road i.e. let the next session handle it and is exactly why we are where we are in Connecticut.  In fact if all the funds for the Gas Tax and the hidden Gross Receipts Tax were left in a savings account - then invested - we could have eliminated or reduced those taxes.  Not sure why no one see’s that as good public policy.  Lottery put in place for education - raided and now and has been forever education suffers.  How about again leave in savings account invest and as long as enough funds then use the funds for one time expenses - not long term expenses because as we all know as time goes bye costs increase.  Its time to run government like a business that cannot always increase revenue/taxes.  Its time to put people in power who get that.

posted by: SocialButterfly | February 2, 2015  12:50pm

LJ47: The walk bridge on the New Haven line is a drop in the bucket. You obviously can’t cite any significant contributions by our illustrious congressmen and are merely resorting to idle rhetoric.

posted by: LongJohn47 | February 2, 2015  1:29pm

CTGasGuy—I’m afraid your numbers wouldn’t add up to much, and no one has enough money lying around to “invest” and then use the proceeds to fix all our ills.  But don’t simply take my word for it.  Call Hartford and speak with your State Senator or State Rep.  They can fill you in on what’s possible.

SBF - I think if you talk to the thousands of people who had to walk to the next station when the Walk Bridge went down last year, they would tell you that fixing it is “significant”, and by the time the project is finished fully two-thirds of the funding will have come from the feds.  Thank you, Blumenthal, Murphy, and Himes (and Malloy).

And while I agree with you that this is not nearly enough, it’s also true that both of our Senators are in their very first term, that throughout that time there has been a Republican House which refused to vote for infrastructure improvements (the Walk Bridge money came through Sandy relief), and that now they are in the minority in the Senate.

As I pointed out to Art in a previous post, if you want to blame someone for the net outflow of funds to the feds, then look at Dodd and Lieberman.  Both thought of themselves as potential Presidents and forgot to fight for CT.

posted by: CtGasGuy | February 2, 2015  5:26pm

Don’t get me started on Federal Funds.  Easy fix all money sent via Federal Gas Tax should be returned to the State that sent it minus 20% - then they can play with that 20% on projects.

posted by: SocialButterfly | February 2, 2015  7:00pm

@LongJohn47: A small contribution from our Connecticut congressional delegation.  I see little other evidence that this crew is fighting for our interests, other than telling us what they want us to hear. That’s why Congress has a job approval rating of under 10 percent.

posted by: LongJohn47 | February 2, 2015  9:29pm

SBF—I can’t possibly know what you “see”, but it’s pretty clear that you’re not looking very hard. 

I’ll just remind you that Murphy and Blumenthal both beat the wrestling lady by significant numbers, even though she spent about $100 million of her own money, and Himes has despatched three different opponents in four elections, so the voters seem to approve of them even if you don’t.