NEXT TIME you go to a restaurant, try this: Tell your waiter you only want to pay for the meal itself — not the portion of the cost that covers the local or corporate management, or the advertising, or the bookkeeping department or any of that other “overhead.” Just the food and food preparation.
That, essentially, is what Gov. Henry McMaster and some legislators and a voters are saying when they suggest that all the money from the gas tax should go to “roads.”
Well, not precisely, because no one’s complaining about the overhead we pay private companies to pave our roads and repair our bridges; their overhead is built into their contracts. The overhead Gov. McMaster says should be funded with general state revenue rather than the gas tax is just the staff at the Department of Transportation. (I’m sure there’s room for efficiency at the Transportation Department, but that’s a different issue, which should be addressed no matter where we get the money.)
Beyond making no sense to call Transportation Department staff “non-road” expenses when you think about how things work in the free market, the problem with funding them with something other than the gas tax is that the money has to come from somewhere else.
And yes, I understand the whole “no desserts” concept (it is Lent, after all). But that somewhere else, the general fund, already is on a severe diet — and so emaciated that we can’t afford to keep our prisons staffed and protect children from parents we suspect of abuse and pay counties to provide the services the state makes them provide and give all kids a decent education.
And yes, I’m sure there’s room for more efficiency in a lot of state agencies, but whoever wants to cut funding needs to point to the specific places we need to make cuts, so we don’t indiscriminately cut the efficient and essential things — like we’ve always done in the past.
Gas-tax opponents hope that stealing general revenue to subsidize road funding will let us fix our roads without increasing taxes. And it can — if they don’t worry about all the vital services we then can’t provide.
But raiding the general fund has also been embraced by some gas-tax advocates, chiefly chief gas-tax advocate Gary Simrill, the House Republican leader. He convinced the House to stop using gas tax money to pay for inspections of fuel tanks, and instead spend that money on roads. And the Ways and Means Committee’s budget includes his plan to pay for rest stops with general fund revenue instead of the gas tax.
Mr. Simrill told me he wanted to assure the public that every penny of a higher gas tax will be spent on roads — although, again, no one is suggesting that we strip overhead costs from our contracts with private road contractors, because they would refuse to sign such contracts.
Besides, the people who make a living fighting tax increases aren’t going to let the truth get in the way of their argument that gas tax money gets dumped into the general fund to pay for routine state expenses.
I was reminded of this the other day when I saw a post from the libertarian S.C. Policy Council, bemoaning the fact that “Of the current 16.75-cent gas tax, less than one cent goes to paving state non-federal roads.”
And yes, that is true. But it doesn’t mean what you’re supposed to think it means.
Here’s how the other 15.75 cents are allocated: 4 cents go to match federal highway dollars (i.e., the money goes to roads), 3 cents pay for materials, supplies and contracts for daily road repairs (i.e., it goes to roads), 2.66 cents go to county transportation committees (i.e., it goes to roads controlled by the counties instead of the state), 1 cent goes to the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank (i.e., it goes to roads, and since the bank is no longer autonomous, it might go to useful projects), 4 cents go to highway-maintenance worker salaries and benefits (i.e., it pays the salaries of the state employees who work on … the roads). And a total of 1.34 cents funds such requirements in state law as cleaning up leaking underground fuel storage tanks, maintaining rest stops, paying for fuel pump inspections and paying for Natural Resources officers who act like Highway Patrol officers on lakes and rivers.
Take all that money out, and you are in fact left with less than 1 cent per gallon to pave (as opposed to building new) non-federal state (as opposed to federal, or local) roads.
Add it back in, and 15.41 cents of the 16.75 cents charged on every gallon go to building and improving our roads.
And those 1.34 cents per gallon are pretty easy to defend. Boat owners would be happy to explain that they pay the gas tax when they fill up their boat tanks, and so it makes sense to use some of that money to pay the waterway patrol.
And we wouldn’t need to inspect fuel pumps and clean up leaking underground storage tanks if gasoline was not sold in our state.
If those types of expenses shouldn’t be covered by taxes on gasoline, then I can’t imagine anything that should be.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.