Bumpy road 

Revisiting the gas tax leads to a political black hole

It's spring in Missoula, and that means our streets once again resemble a level of Moon Patrol. Thanks to the natural action of freezing and thawing, enormous potholes have opened up across the city—deep ones, their bottoms shrouded in darkness, from which one faintly hears the strains of Chinese music. And thanks to the natural action of representative government, nobody can do anything about it.

The Public Works Committee is trying. At a meeting two weeks ago, members again raised the possibility of a 2-cents-per-gallon local sales tax on gasoline. And from deep inside his pothole, Satan laughed.

He knows we need the money. According to Jessica Morriss, Missoula's transportation manager, the city needs to perform more transportation improvements than it has money to pay for. We should probably take steps to increase revenue before mole people come pouring out of South Fifth Street to enslave us. But no city in Montana has ever successfully passed a local-option gas tax.

On a related note, the federal Highway Trust Fund—from which Missoula gets most of its funding for transportation improvements—has been insolvent since 2008. It gets its money from federal gas taxes, and the federal rate has sat at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1994. Montana's 27.75-cents-per-gallon tax has been the same since that year, too.

Needless to say, I'm against raising it. The government takes too much of my money already. Why can't we have nice roads and lower taxes? Why won't somebody fix the potholes and leave my wallet alone? Maybe if I correctly answer the riddle that troll asked me when my truck fell into his hole on Cowper Street, I can wish for it.

In the meantime, we have a problem. Every year, inflation makes transportation improvements more expensive and the gas tax operatively lower. The 28 cents per gallon we pay today is worth 19 cents in 1994 dollars, which means we've effectively cut gas taxes by a third over the last two decades. It's no wonder we can't afford to fix the roads. But raising gas taxes—even by 2 cents, much less by the 14 cents it would take to adjust for inflation—is a political nonstarter.

In order to propose a local-option gas tax, the Missoula City Council needs to ask the board of county commissioners to put it on the ballot. The last time that happened was in 1994, when voters rejected a 2-cent tax 55 percent to 45 percent. The council asked the commission to put another initiative on the ballot four years ago, but commissioners refused.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • photo by Chad Harder

Council members Emily Bentley and Jon Wilkins told the Missoulian they didn't expect a gas tax to fare better in 2016. Bentley said she was open to considering it, but she didn't think voters would approve unless it were offset by reduced property taxes.

That wouldn't help. Changing where we get our transportation funding won't solve the problem that we don't have enough. If we pass a gas tax and then offset the revenue with reduced property taxes, all we'll do is shift some of the burden of paying for our roads to people who don't own houses. At a moment when home prices in Missoula are at an all-time high—and wages remain frustratingly low—that seems not just ineffective but unethical.

But who has the political capital to convince voters to tax themselves? The undercarriage of our city seems to have slammed into the chuckhole of representative government, spilling the hot coffee of unintended consequences onto the toddler of complaining about stuff.

Every year, inflation means that 28 cents buys less road. But the realities of electoral politics make it borderline suicidal to suggest raising the gas tax. As a result, we're effectively lowering taxes every year, even when we don't want to, even after they've fallen below a sustainable level.

What this town needs is some kind of very popular political figure—one who consistently defeats challengers to his office by such large margins that he can afford to get behind a tax increase for our own good. He'd have to be charismatic and influential and so secure in his position that he could confidently back an unpopular measure. That's why I'm calling on Gargleblax, King of the Mole People, to propose a 2-cent gas tax.

If he won't do it, Mayor Engen should. He's almost as popular as Gargleblax, and recent changes to the makeup of the county commission have given him influence there. The city council would follow his lead. Voters might remain intractable, but maybe public opinion will change as the roads get worse.

They're sure not getting any better. I dislike taxes as much as the next guy, especially this time of year. But 2 cents per gallon is better than death by a thousand bumps.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and the roiling underdark at combatblog.net.

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