POWELL: Raising gas tax protects all that's wrong in government

Published on Monday, 7 December 2020 21:01
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Having been there, done that, and gotten a T-shirt reading "My Party Abandoned Me," Governor Lamont seems to have given up on imposing tolls on Connecticut highways to fortify the state's transportation infrastructure. But having just increased their majorities in the General Assembly, Democratic legislators are musing about raising gasoline taxes instead.

The big political problem with tolls remains that they are too visible and responsibility for them is too easily fixed with elected officials.

Not so with gasoline taxes. For gas pumps and receipts don't show taxes, which are simply built into the prices displayed - and Connecticut levies not only a 25-cent tax on each gallon sold at retail but also a tax of nearly 9 percent on every wholesale gallon sold by distributors to retailers. The wholesale tax adds about 11 cents per gallon.

Since an amount equal to the wholesale tax revenue could be obtained by raising the retail tax, the main reason for the wholesale tax is to increase concealment of gas taxes.

On top of the political advantage of concealing gas taxes, some legislators think there is a good policy reason to raise gas taxes: that Connecticut's now are lower than the national average. That is, these legislators think that Connecticut residents deserve to pay more for gas.

But Connecticut is practically in a depression, its economy much weaker than the national average because living here is already too expensive. Making Connecticut competitive requires avoiding tax increases.

Worse, every cent raised in new taxes reduces the incentive for state government to audit itself for efficiency and to economize, even as nearly every week produces an example of state government's indifference to costs.

Last week it was an arbiter's order to Central Connecticut State University to reinstate and pay $200,000 in back wages to an employee fired for criminal conduct alleged in his personal life. But the charges were dismissed. Apparently university administrators never heard of due process of law.

For months now amid the virus epidemic schools have provided little education and thousands of students with neglectful parents have disappeared, but schools still cost the same or more. Businesses that don't produce as usual have had to reduce compensation for their employees or close, but not public education, where even before the epidemic there was no link between pay and performance.

When certain people prattle that "we're all in this together" they don't seem to notice that even as they have kept their jobs at full pay they are lecturing those who have lost their jobs and income. Despite the hard times, there is little sacrifice in government. No, we're not "all in this together."

Legislators and others who want to raise taxes for transportation infrastructure contend that transportation is supremely important. But it is never so important as to prompt them to propose economizing elsewhere in state government and transferring the savings to transportation. Indeed, nothing in state government lately has been important enough to prompt economizing elsewhere. A few months ago state government began paying its employees $350 million in raises and nobody in authority said the money should be diverted to transportation. For in Connecticut the compensation of government employees always comes first.

So the public's only leverage over state government is to oppose any tax increases until there are sweeping efforts to audit and economize. A gas tax increase will do less for transportation than it will insure that everything wasteful, ineffective, and corrupt in government stays as it is.

Government remains wasteful, ineffective, and corrupt because the state's political class - those people who pay attention - is mostly on government's own payroll and because most people in the private sector, mere taxpayers, pay little attention. That's why Connecticut should require referendums on all tax increases. A state constitutional amendment would be needed to require referendums for state tax increases, but ordinary law could require them for municipal tax increases.

Such referendums would prompt more mere taxpayers to pay attention and maybe push a few members of the political class to search for efficiencies and question priorities in government before trying to raise taxes when they want to spend more on something.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

Posted in New Britain Herald, Columns, Editorials on Monday, 7 December 2020 21:01. Updated: Monday, 7 December 2020 21:03.