Friday, February 29, 2008

Remember That Bridge?

If you work at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, you can’t really forget it because not only is the site just northwest of the campus, but the twisted pieces of the original bridge are laid out on the west bank of the Mississippi River for investigators. It’s a daily reminder of what happened last August.

This week, the state legislature overrode a veto of a transportation bill by the governor. He vetoes anything with a tax increase attached because of a pledge he made to a special interest group before he was elected the first time, and it’s the opinion of many, including myself, that he has his sights on national office. He can’t very well renege on his pledge now, can he? Even if he has hamstrung the state government and passed on higher fees and property taxes to the citizens of Minnesota in order to “keep his promise,” hurting our schools, neighborhoods, and families in the process. What will really matter is that he can say that he never technically raised taxes.

The bill has passed, and Minnesota drivers will start seeing gas taxes go up by two cents per gallon in April of 2008. It’s being phased in over the next few years with 3.5 to follow in fall of 2008 and 3 more over the next three years. Republicans are grandstanding about government spending and burdens on taxpayers, but legislators who pushed a stadium bill raising taxes and the republican governor who signed it can just shut right up, I think.

While the governor is saying that this tax will propel us from 28th to 7th, Minnesota is actually number 35 out of 50 in the rate at which we tax gas; the first increase puts us to 30th, and the fall increase would put us at a tie for 21st. Including the whole increase over the next three years and figuring that no other state will raise gas taxes, Minnesota will still be number 16 (Rankings from the National Petroleum Institute, further information from Minnesota 2020). Beyond that, a new survey shows that Minnesota has some of the lowest gas prices in the country. We pay an average of $3.03 per gallon, which is 13 cents cheaper than the national average, and only Wyoming, New Jersey, and Missouri have lower average prices (StarTribune, AAA).

Furthermore, MNDoT is essentially broke, and our transportation infrastructure is 20 years behind and in need of upgrades and repair. Again, see: that bridge and the numerous other bridges and roads in need of attention. MNDoT has been spending half its money on new projects and expansion as opposed to preservation and repair, and revenue from the existing gas tax has been going down because it has not even been adjusted for inflation over the last twenty years.

I don’t get it, and I don’t get all the bitching. Where do people think the government gets its money? Government grants? When the government does anything; when the government pays itself; we pay for it. That’s the deal with taxation. Are the governor and opponents of this tax suggesting that this money should come out of nowhere when we are already facing an almost billion dollar deficit? They would probably say that it should come out of all those programs for old, sick, and poor people because it's spending that is out of control in this one-sided coin. It's not a lack of revenue. Taxpayers complaining about this are probably also complaining about their property taxes going up in the last few years. Well, guess what: our property taxes have been going up, in part, because our governor has been passing on costs to the counties and local governments, which have to pay for local roads, schools, and infrastructure.

Apparently, it’s OK for the citizens to pay more in sales tax for a professional sports stadium and subsidize a billion dollar private industry that most people won’t witness, but it’s bad to raise revenue for our roads, bridges, and transportation initiatives.

I know that this is not a debate about the Twins’ Stadium. That’s a done deal, and the taxpayers were not given a say. What I find amusing is the relative furor over this gas tax and what it actually means. It will provide funds that will put Minnesotans to work, and it’s estimated that the economic benefits of such investment outweigh the cost as much as 8-1 (Texan Governor’s Business Council). It’s long over due, and the revenue will still not make up for the ground we have lost over the past 20 years.

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