During its recently completed session, the Missouri General Assembly passed a measure that would let voters decide whether to increase the state sales tax to pay for improvements to highways and for other transportation needs. This action is interesting for a couple of reasons.
First is the underlying assumption that voters are in fact capable of making an informed decision about how to generate revenue for the state.
As far as I can tell, when people agree with the outcome of an election they tend to say the voters knew what they were doing. When people disagree with the outcome, they tend to say the voters were not informed or weren’t competent to make the decision in the first place.
For example, how people feel about issues as varied as raising the minimum wage, gun control, gay marriage, affirmative action or right to work legislation probably determines whether they think the electorate can be trusted to decide such questions. Oftentimes the people who vigorously contend that the will of the voters must be respected in some instances are the same folks who argue in other instances that some issues are too important and too complicated to be left to the voters to decide.
Second, assuming Missouri voters are in fact capable of making an informed decision on raising the sales tax for transportation, another interesting assumption is driving this proposal: Some have apparently decided that increasing the fuel tax to pay for road improvements is unacceptable. These people say the gas tax is already too high or at least high enough.
While Americans may grumble about taxes on gasoline, just as we complain about almost any form of taxation, it’s worth noting that our fuel taxes are among the lowest in the developed world, as anyone who has driven a car in Europe can attest. Moreover, the gas tax in Missouri is one of the lowest in the United States -- much less than half of what it is in some states. Add in the fact that Missouri, unlike many other states, has no toll roads and you’re left with the conclusion that driving a car is less expensive in the United States than it is in most of the industrialized world; and it’s cheaper in Missouri than in most of the rest of the United States.
Gasoline taxes would appear to be a logical and fair means of paying for roads. The amount of fuel consumed correlates well, if not perfectly, with road usage. Heavier vehicles tend to use more fuel and do more damage to roadways per mile of driving than lighter vehicles. Likewise, driving greater distances requires more fuel and puts more strain on the roads than driving shorter distances.
Why not raise Missouri’s gas tax to a level more in line with the rest of the country? Why not share the cost of paying for roads in proportion to the usage made of roadways?
For those who think that the cost of gasoline is already too high, I would suggest a simple survey. If you are listening to this commentary in your car, look around at the other vehicles on the road. I did this recently and noted that the vast majority had a single occupant: the driver. I was part of this majority. I’m not suggesting this was a scientific survey, but most of the commuters I see in the morning consist of one person per car. If the gas tax really is onerously high, don’t you think more of us would be carpooling?
Tom Schlafly is a lawyer and cofounder of the Saint Louis Brewery.
Note: Read and listen to A commentary by Mayor Francis Slay pointing out the need for the sales tax Benefits Of Transportation Sales Tax Are Worth The Cost.