Port: North Dakota should raise the fuel tax

Rob Port
Rob Port

MINOT, N.D. -- A fundamental truth about politics is that voters very often want contradictory things.

This flies in the face of populist mantras about the wisdom of the masses - those chanted by the sort of people who insist we must implement speech suppressing policy such as Measure 1 simply because it’s the “will of the people."

But it’s true.

The federal government doesn’t run an annual budget deficit which measures in the hundreds of billions of dollars because the electorate is made up of principled, clear-eyed voters who accept that expansive government necessitates higher taxes.

What the masses want, in all their wisdom, are lots of government services and low taxes.

Which our politicians, who value staying elected more sound fiscal policy, deliver by financing that outcome with deficit spending.

You can see this obnoxious reality of politics play out around the debate over the fuel tax here in North Dakota.

As originally introduced SB2288, introduced by Senator Larry Luick (R-Fairmont), would have raised the tax on gasoline in our state from 23 cents to 30 cents.

The bill was amended in committee to raise the tax to only 27 cents per gallon but even that modest increase -- which would have produced an additional $60 million in revenue for our roads in the coming biennium -- was a bridge too far for the state Senate.

Luick’s bill failed this week on a 26 - 18 vote.

This issue isn’t officially dead, but it may as well be. There is another bill to in the House to raise the fuel tax to 30 cents per gallon, but it’s backed by a Democrat in a Republican-dominated chamber that is typically averse to tax increases.

I, too, am averse to higher taxes, but the gas tax makes sense. It’s a sort of user fee. The more you drive the more tax you pay. Those who use the roads the most end up paying the most tax.

I like policy which ties the cost of a government service as closely and proportionally as possible to those using the service.

Problem is gas prices are one of the most visible costs in the economy. Filling stations literally post them on signs along our roads.

Few politicians want to be blamed for pushing those prices up. As evidence, consider that North Dakota’s fuel tax hasn’t been adjusted since 2005, and the federal rate hasn’t been touched since 1993.

If the fuel tax isn’t adequate to cover the cost of the roads we deal with the shortfall by delaying needed construction and maintenance projects.

Or we pay for those things out of more general tax revenues like the income or sales taxes.

It would be good policy to ensure the fuel tax produces enough revenue to pay for good roads, but once again good politics is going to trump good policy.

Because while a majority of voters may say they want nice, reliable roads they also don’t want to pay for them.

That’s the will of the people.

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.