Does Your State Have the Gas Tax Pandemic?


“Collecting more taxes than is absolutely necessary is legalized robbery.” — Calvin Coolidge

Returning from World War II, realizing the necessity to accommodate economic growth and prosperity, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. This fashioned a complex interstate network of roads, bridges and highways we refer to as interstate highways. The day the U.S. broke ground, it would prove to eclipse the importance of the transcontinental railroad. It was to become a major part of our culture, like SUVs and fast food restaurants. Each of us is affected by it since every commodity we purchase travels the interstate system.

“I have one yardstick by which I test every major problem: Is it good for America?” — Dwight D. Eisenhower

The Federal-Aid Highway Act not only improved the migration of goods throughout the U.S. but it was strategic in linking military bases. In 1919, Eisenhower traveled with the Transcontinental Motor Convoy across America, and he envisioned the need for improved national thoroughfares. He knew states working alone without federal aid could not build a fluid national transportation system and maintain it. He had traveled the German Autobahn during World War II, which inspired his intricate plan to build the best highways in the modern world. Within a decade, his vision was a reality.

“The world moves, and ideas that were once good are not always good.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower

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The federal government offered to pay 90 percent of the costs. This was a great deal for the states since they provided the labor, which vastly improved local economies. Additionally, existing highways and turnpikes were linked to the Interstate system. This was an added gratuity for states since more traffic on their toll roads and bridges increased revenue. By 1960, we completed Eisenhower’s vision of a transcontinental highway system, which today is over 47,000 miles long.

“For every obstacle there is a solution. Persistence is the key.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower

The success of the Federal Highway Act and the complex system of roads, bridges, turnpikes and toll roads was dependent on each state doing its part to maintain it. And that is where “the rubber meets the road.” In the 1980s, in urban areas around the nation, we began to see freeway revolts, which ended many interstate projects. In some cities, activists complained of the destruction of established and minority communities, which forced politicians to give into public opinion and stop many projects. Additionally, they queried over what was federal and state responsibility, so many parts of this complex system fell into disrepair. Today, this battle is still being fought.

“It is better to have one person working with you than three people working for you.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower

It has been said many times, there is no such thing as a “free ride.” The states are facing this rude awakening with each passing day a bridge is determined unsafe and a major highway is in need of expensive repair. States can only blame themselves not planning for expansion and renovation of their infrastructure as economic and population growth slaps their transportation committees in the face. That’s when the financial fingers start pointing: “Who is going to pay for this?” Each day this battle goes on, our local transportation networks are more congested and unsafe for the taxpayers, who are paying dearly for their upkeep.

“Pessimism never won any battle.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower

When President Donald Trump announced the details of his infrastructure proposal to rejuvenate much of our interstate highway system, the states jumped for joy thinking they were getting another free ride. This is a fool’s pipe dream. Although his proposal consists of tax credits for our private-sector investors, which would boost investment in transportation projects, this is not the panacea. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. This does not pay for maintenance of existing roads, bridges and public transit projects. It does next to nothing for our rural-area transportation system. The states themselves got into this mess by commingling the fuel tax with the general fund thinking the feds would bail them out.

“We have to be realistic about what the state can afford.” — Jerry Brown

For decades, states have mismanaged infrastructure dollars and punished taxpayers who paid for it. Gas taxes earmarked for transportation maintenance were hijacked by political bureaucrats to finance projects for personal support. This created an infrastructure pandemic across America. Californians passed citizen initiatives in 2002, 2006 and 2012 to mandate all gas taxes were used for roads only. Yet it was three strikes and you are out for “left coasters” as Gov. Jerry Brown robbed the cookie jar. He just signed the biggest gas tax increase in history of $5.2 billion annually.

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“Everyone uses our roads and everyone will have to chip in a little more for it.” — Jerry Brown

It has been said that taxes are a necessary evil. The late, great Milton Freeman told us, “The only good tax is a user tax for the people who benefit from it.” Traditionally, the gas tax has been off limits when it comes to raising revenue at the federal and state levels. Everyone buys fuel and the cost of gas is more unstable than the career of a conservative journalist, so politicians avoid fuel tax increases like the plague. But with infrastructure in such disarray, states are now passing “in-your-face” increases in the gas tax, claiming it’s long overdue. Much like California, the worst-managed state in the nation, they took too much of Peter’s gas taxes from Paul and now both Peter and Paul will pay dearly for it.

“It’s in the best interest of all Californians to fix this system now.” — Jerry Brown

Many states have been practicing backward economics, and that has brought them to the point of diminishing return. Rather than investing in infrastructure, they have offered corporate subsidies to promote economic growth instead of making growth pay for itself. This is a common core approach to revenue management. Corporate cronyism at the expense of taxpayer fuel dollars is a short fix for a long-term problem. Stealing money from the transportation fund and raising the gas taxes to finance transportation improvements is like eating the chicken who is laying the golden eggs, since it costs so much to feed her. This is an oxymoron created by state fiscal mismanagement.

“I reject get-it-done, make-it-happen thinking. I want to slow things down so I understand.” — Jerry Brown

Voltaire told us “Common sense is not so common.” Pilfering transportation funds by the stewards of our nation’s infrastructure has had serious consequences. Since fuel taxes are designed to fund transportation projects, when they go belly up it affects the entire economy. When the states face the reality every toll road, bridge, and highway is not a federal responsibility, they take the coward’s way out and raise fuel taxes. The citizens in California passed three initiatives in one decade to tell their politicians to keep their hands off their fuel taxes and they did not listen. Just ask Jerry Brown.

“It doesn’t matter what I say as long as I sound different from other politicians.” — Jerry Brown

Increasing fuel taxes hurts the economy and lowers the state GNP. It is time our states prioritize their spending, and say hands off fuel taxes and take them out of the general fund. Put them into a lockbox and hide them from the budget committee. The feds won’t bail them out every time they squeal for help. The taxpayers are paying more at the pump for a government that delivers less each day. The days of tax and spend brought the former “gold coast” to its knees. Which state will be next?

“The great problem with government is that it never goes bankrupt.” — Jerry Brown

William Haupt III is a retired professional journalist, author, and citizen legislator in California for over 40 years. He got his start working to approve California Proposition 13.

A version of this Op-Ed previously appeared on under the headline “Op-Ed: Does your state have the gas tax pendemic?”

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The Center Square was launched in May 2019 to fulfill the need for high-quality statehouse and statewide news across the United States.

The focus of our work is state- and local-level government and economic reporting. A taxpayer sensibility distinguishes our work from other coverage of state and local issues. As a result of this approach, our readers are better informed about the focus of state and local government and its cost to the citizens whose tax dollars fund governmental decisions.

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