Eric Frazier

Spin cycle blurs gas tax reality

Why is it so hard for politicians to understand that everyday citizens aren’t total idiots?

That’s my question after hearing the spin N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and other leaders applied to their gas-tax-increasing plan, which passed second reading Wednesday.

“Tax relief” was what Berger’s office called it. Sen. Bill Rabon, the Brunswick County Republican who sponsored the legislation, called it a two-and-a-half-cent tax cut.

And it is, short-term. Followed by a longer-term tax hike expected to bring in about $1.2 billion more in the next four years. Additionally, it blocks a steeper tax cut that would have taken effect if they’d done nothing.

Confused? Well, good. It appears that’s what the Republican leadership in Raleigh intended.

Allow me to unpack it.

Gas taxes supply the bulk of the state’s transportation money, but since part of the tax is pegged to the wholesale price of fuel, falling gas prices also mean falling gas tax collections.

The current 37.5-cent-per-gallon tax was set to drop by 6 to 8 cents in July, costing the state Department of Transportation as much as $400 million annually and jeopardizing road projects around the state.

The new plan instead calls for a 2.5-cent tax cut come March, with 35 cents set as a new minimum rate. It means less volatility. But it also means our tax, one of the highest in the nation, would likely rise by 2019 to be as much as 7 cents higher than today’s formula – thus the additional $1.2 billion.

I hate high gas prices as much as the next guy, but I can see that lawmakers have to do something. We’ve got a state that’s growing and a stream of transportation dollars that isn’t. More fuel-efficient cars will compound the problem long-term.

We can argue about whether higher gas taxes is the best route, but folks in Ballantyne can tell you roads don’t automatically widen when more houses pop up.

The case for action makes itself. So why didn’t our fearless leaders just give it to us straight? Because by dodging right before veering left, they can fight the attack ads next campaign cycle.

Challengers will say they raised gas taxes. They’ll say they cut them. Both will be true, technically. Confused voters will shrug. Presto! Political damage neutralized.

It’s cynical as all get out, but I suppose it’s what you do when you’re a politician facing unpleasant but pragmatically un-duck-able votes.

This might not be the last bit of slippery semantics we hear on transportation funding. By some projections, the state faces a $60 billion shortfall by 2040. Experts say we need less reliance on fuel taxes, and that new tolls or a vehicle-miles-traveled fee could help.

Let the spin cycle begin.