Nobody wants to raise taxes; at least nobody who pays taxes wants to raise taxes. That’s what we are all led to believe, but is it true? Any politician running for office on a platform that says, “If you elect me, I pledge to raise your taxes” doesn’t stand much of a chance of getting elected or (in the unlikely case of an incumbent) reelected.
Everybody, though, wants the government to provide basic services. There is always a dialogue, particularly in an election year, as to what “basic” means. At one end of the spectrum are those who see many of society’s needs that could be met with just a little more public assistance – translated, more tax dollars. At the other end are those who argue that less government spending is always better, regardless. Most people here in Edgefield County would come down in the middle some place; “basic services” like local police, fire protection, and public education need to be supplied by the government, with the discussion limited to what other services are “basic.” Here is my candidate for today’s discussion: roads and bridges.
Our present South Carolina government prides itself on being pro-business. Almost all of our raw materials and manufactured goods travel on our roads. How are the roads paid for? The answer used to be, by the highway fuel tax. But recently there has been a lot of discussion in Columbia about diverting additional tax money to reduce the growing backlog of road repairs. It’s not a question of whether, only a question of how much. That would mean either higher income taxes or less spending on something else like public education. Surely we can’t afford that. What’s wrong with using just our highway fuel taxes on roads?
Let’s look at the numbers. Our state highway tax is 16 cents a gallon. It was set at that rate in 1989, and has been there unchanged, for 25 years. 16 cents won’t buy today what it did in 1989; 16 cents then would be worth 30.5 cents today. Many of us remember how much better our roads were maintained in 1989. Is 30.5 cents about where our state gas tax has always been? Well, no. In today’s currency the average has been around 49.4 cents per gallon; 16 cents actually sets a new record – it’s lower today than it has been ever, for the 92 years that we’ve had a state highway tax.
Everybody agrees that gas prices are too high already. Although we gasoline buyers are paying those prices, we taxpayers aren’t getting the benefit of them. Who is, might be the subject of a later OpEd, but it’s not us in Edgefield County. Just drive US 25 or SC 23 for a while, not to mention crossing some of the bridges on our county roads, and you will almost certainly agree.
Prices go up, thankfully most not as much as fuel prices. But that means costs go up too, and highway fuel taxes need to go up just for us to stay even when it comes to maintaining those roads and bridges. Having our current gas tax at an all-time low mirrors the condition of our roads and bridges. One is the cause, the other the effect. Our present fuel tax level is less than one-third its average over the last 92 years.
There is nothing pro-business about having a crumbling infrastructure, particularly roads and bridges. Who wants to raise South Carolina taxes, at least our highway taxes? Anybody who uses our roads and bridges should.