Idaho’s highways are in serious need of repair and upgrade. The Transportation Department (ITD) estimates that it would cost an additional $250 million per year, just to maintain the status quo.
Many of us are skeptical. To us, the roads look fine… until a bridge falls into the river, like it did back in Minnesota.
Enter Guv C. L. “Butch” Otter.
(Remember CONGRESSMAN Butch? The libertarian-leaning advocate of the downtrodden taxpayer? Heir apparent to Steve “take a bite out of government” Symms? Well, times have changed.)
Simply put, Butch is trying to figure out some way to get 250 million more dollars out of taxpayers’ bank accounts, and into the ITD bank account.
The first idea Butch floated (during the ’08 Legislative session) was of drastically increasing vehicle registration fees. The reception was lukewarm… about the temperature of liquid nitrogen, as I recall.
Now he’s talking about a “mileage tax.” It would be simple. Read the odometer each time the car is registered, and collect dollars based on miles-driven since last time.
He’s obviously thinking anything is better than raising the fuel tax!
Let’s take a look at the options.
(I’m just throwin’ ’em out for people to chew on.)
A revenue-enhancing registration fee sounds fair, doesn’t it?
Wait! Not so fast! Here’s a commonplace scenario:
Beavis has a 1992 Ford F-150. He drives it back and forth between his house in Kuna and his job in east Boise – puts 20,000 miles on it in a year.
Next door lives – you guessed it – Butthead. He puts 2000 miles a year on his identical ’92 F-150, doing a couple dump-runs and a few fishing and hunting trips.
Just to make the math easy, let’s say Butch charges ’em $200/year to register that truck.
Turns out Beavis would be paying one cent per mile, and Butthead ten cents, for the privilege of being registered.
Also, it should be noted that the “foreigners” who visit Idaho from California and other places are not sharing in the registration-fee revenue scenario.
Same scenario: If Butch collects five cents per mile, Beavis pays $1000 (ouch!) and Butthead pays $100. (Beavis isn’t gonna like this!)
But… how about the guy who lives in Post Falls but does 90% of his driving in Washington? Should he pay the five cents, too?
Can of worms!
A variation that’s being tested next door in Oregon is a GPS-based scheme. A GPS receiver installed in the car keeps track of miles driven. Shades of “Big Brother,” huh? That’s why most people don’t like it – in these parts, we don’t like the government keeping such close track of us.
A mileage-based tax would encourage an underground industry that specializes in odometer tweakage, GPS file hacking, etc. I’m just sayin’. And like the registration fee, a per-mile tax would exclude the despised Californians. And the tolerated Oregonians, Utahns, etc. (Tourism is a growing and desirable industry. I don’t know what share of the roadbuilding and upkeep fees should be shared with our tourists… but it should be part of the discussion.)
Nobody (except maybe for the disciples of Pope Algore) wants to see higher gas prices. It would be a brave politician indeed, who would advocate for 20 cents more per gallon, when gas is already four bucks.
But compared with the plans that Butch has proposed so far, it seems more equitable.
– The guy in the Hummer will pay more per mile, than the guy in the Geo Metro.
– The guy who drives 20,000 miles will pay more than the guy who drives 2000 miles.
– We also include the tourists, at least the tourists who are driving (and thus putting wear and tear on our roads).
Plus, it’s easily collected.
Opponents point out that as people drive more fuel-efficient vehicles, revenues will drop.
What’s the alternative? Should gas misers be punished, or taxed at a higher rate than gas guzzlers? As a general rule, the better fuel mileage a car gets, the less wear-and-tear it’s likely to put on the road, because of lighter weight.
There is not, and never will be, a revenue-collecting method that’s fair for everybody. There are disadvantages to any of ’em. But if we need a big influx of cash… from this observer’s viewpoint, as unpalatable as it may be, the gas tax seems like the most fair and easy way to collect from the actual roadway users. Substantially more so than either a registration tax or an odometer tax. And the Libertarians should take Butch’s membership card away for even suggesting those other ideas!
(An expanded version of this discussion can be seen at Bikeboy’s IDAHO SPUD blog.
To insure more advertising-free Boise Guardian news, please consider financial support.