Supporters of increased fuel taxes and car registration fees have argued for years that higher taxes and fees on drivers and vehicles are the only way to fund transportation infrastructure. Using general tax revenue to fund transportation was not appropriate, they said, even taboo. User fees only, they demanded.
Well, the Legislature did something interesting last legislative session that is something of a precedent. Lawmakers voted overwhelming to start using non-road money to pay for transportation. And the bill passed by wide margins, winning even the support of diehard user fee advocates. Gov. Butch Otter, also a user fee advocate, signed House Bill 547.
The bill moves cigarette tax revenue, now being used to pay off the Statehouse renovations, redirecting the money to a number of water projects, the repayment of federal highway debt funding and for highway maintenance.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, downplays the move. "I suppose you could say that the cigarette tax moves us somewhat in the direction of general funds for transportation, but I think that distinction has limits," he said.
What's the limit, you wonder? Says Brackett, “The cigarette tax is obviously not a transportation user tax, but technically it is a dedicated fund, not a general fund.”
I like Brackett so, sorry Bert, but this is the word game that politicians and bureaucrats play with people. The money does not come from the state general fund—the account that receives funding from sales and income taxes and pays for most state services.
Instead it comes from cigarette taxes from a separate account, so, therefore, it is not the same thing as coming from general tax receipts. Get it? Neither do I. The short answer is, it's a distinction without a difference. And it is a distinction made by politicians so that 1) they can claim that no general tax dollars are going to transportation and 2) it hides the fact they've increased general government spending by millions of dollars more than they're comfortable saying.
Had House Bill 547 not passed, the money would have defaulted to general government purposes (or tax relief, but that's another topic for another day).
While I don't think cigarette taxes for roads (or water, really) are a great fit, it helps break, finally, the idea that only one type of money can be used for roads. The idea of user fees for highways is a myth. Everyone is a user of roads, not just car and truck drivers.
Even if you don't own a car, you still use the roads. If you walk to the grocery store to buy a loaf of bread, you're a user of roads. How did that loaf of bread get to the store, anyway? Quite possibly in a big ol' truck, I'm guessing.
Eventually, state lawmakers are going to have to do something to help solve the state's transportation infrastructure problems. Until 2014, the frontrunner for "doing something" was a tax increase. Now, the seawall has been breached. Taxes need not be raised. General tax revenues can be used to help fund roads and bridges. That's a good thing.