Falling gas prices have been a lifeline for millions of low- and middle-income families who are still struggling in this lackluster economy. The average gallon of gas costs over a dollar less than it did a year ago, giving hard-working Americans the equivalent of a $700 tax cut per family.
Now federal and state politicians want to shift those savings into reverse.
In Washington and state capitols across the country, politicians are trying to tap into their constituents’ good fortune with calls for higher gas taxes. Their arguments go something like this: Our roads and our bridges are crumbling; we don’t have enough money to fix them; therefore, the only solution is to increase revenues and plug the holes.
Not so fast. While the particulars may vary between Washington and from state to state, one fact remains constant across the board: Governments have plenty of money to meet infrastructure demands. The problem is they fail to prioritize—and therefore misspend—our money.
That’s certainly been the case in my home state of Tennessee. Gov. Bill Haslam (R) is currently gallivanting across the state calling for an increase to our gas tax. Joining him are various special interests—including building and construction companies—that stand to gain handsomely if his plan goes through.
In any case, a look at our state finances shows that Haslam should focus on effectively steering the government he manages before hitting up hardworking taxpayers for more cash. For example, in April state legislators diverted $120 million in surplus funds to construct a new state museum. If infrastructure funding is truly in peril, this state-level “Smithsonian”—as our lt. gov. characterized it—could certainly be put on hold. Other examples abound, as well.
So while there are indeed songs coming out of Nashville, they aren’t the funding blues. State lawmakers should instead crank up their fiscal pens and start playing another tune.
Unfortunately for hard-working families in these states, a double whammy may be coming down the pike. Washington lawmakers are also clamoring for more revenues to replenish the Highway Trust Fund, which will run out of funding next year. To hear them tell it, every interstate highway in America will be reduced to dust unless drivers pony up more at the pump. Yet just like in the states, funding isn’t the problem—it’s how politicians choose to spend it.
Over the last several decades, the government’s infrastructure fund—which is meant for roads and bridges—has evolved into a pork fund for pet projects. A recent analysis found at least 20 percent of federal gas-tax revenues goes to items other than infrastructure. These include such pressing needs as bike lanes and transportation museums. The Wall Street Journal found spending on these and other non-highway programs increased by fully 40 percent since 2008, while highway-related spending stayed flat.
All told, were federal gas tax revenues devoted exclusively to highways, the Highway Trust Fund would be 98 percent solvent for the next 10 years.
Taxpayers across the country should keep this in mind the next time they hear politicians bellowing for higher gas taxes—whether it be in Tennessee, Washington, D.C., or anywhere else in America. More often than not, government coffers are running low due to years of poor fiscal management, not a lack of revenue. Rather than hitting up taxpayers for more cash, politicians should roll up their sleeves and start making tough choices about spending—exactly what they were elected to do, and what Americans deserve.
Andy Ogles is the Tennessee state director of Americans for Prosperity. This op ed originally ran in The Hill.