An accountant's perspective on the gas tax: vote "yes" on Question 1

A "yes" vote holds legislators and the governor accountable

By Randy Hunt, State Representative for the 5th Barnstable District

The November 2014 ballot in Massachusetts contains four questions that were brought by citizens’ petition. Question 1 would repeal the automatic increase of the gasoline/diesel excise tax based on inflation.

Background

In 2013, legislators passed a 3-cent per gallon increase in the excise tax to raise funds for bridge and road repairs and maintenance. The law also included indexing the gas tax to future increases in the consumer price index, a measure of inflation. It’s a one-way ratchet wrench; the law puts a floor on the tax but allows infinite increases. For the record, I voted against this bill.

This change increased the Massachusetts tax per gallon to 24 cents. Combined with the underground tank removal tax of 2.5 cents per gallon, we pay 26.5 cents per gallon to the state. Add to that 18.4 cents of Federal excise tax for gasoline or 24.4 cents for diesel and you’re paying 44.9 cents or 50.9 cents per gallon, a total of $6.74 of taxes on a 15-gallon fill up of gasoline or $7.64 for diesel.

Voting “Yes” based on principle

Here’s all that most people need to know to vote “Yes” to repeal the index to inflation: Left as is, legislators and the governor will be off the hook from now on when it comes to raising the gas tax. Instead of taking a vote on future increases, your legislators can hide behind an accountant’s calculator saying “It is what it is.”

Voting “Yes” based on the numbers

For those who need additional perspective, I’ve done a little work to see if the “Vote No on Question 1” group has a supportable position. They say that our roads and bridges are in bad shape. With this, I agree. Almost worst in the nation is Massachusetts.

They also say that if we pass Question 1, the state will lose $1 billion over the next ten years in transportation funding. Here’s my take on that:

  1. I’ll stipulate to the $1 billion figure. I’m sure higher paid accountants than me slaved over this number to meet truth-in-advertising standards.
  2. The legislature is technically in session 365 days a year. If the gas tax needs to be increased, there is no reason why the legislature cannot accommodate the need by voting to raise the tax, thereby gutting the argument that the state would lose $1 billion in taxes over ten years.

Need more? Here we go.

According to a September 2014 report published by the Reason Foundation, the 50 states, on average, spend $162,000 per year per road mile. This includes capital expenditures as well as repair and maintenance spending plus the overhead cost of administration. Massachusetts spends $675,000 per year per road mile.

Seems extreme to me, so a better comparison would be Massachusetts versus the six New England states as a whole. We suffer from much tougher weather than many other states. Pothole season has its own official recognition: April, Pothole History Month.

The cost per year per road mile in the six New England states is $360,000. Excluding Massachusetts, that number is $297,000. We pay more than double what our neighboring states do.

How does this translate into a comparison we can use to decide how to vote on Question 1?

To achieve $1 billion dollars in savings over ten years, Massachusetts would have to trim 4% of the cost of building and maintaining our roads and bridges. Achievable? Of course.

How much would Massachusetts save if our spending was in line with the 6-state New England average? $1.2 billion per year.

Conclusion

Vote “Yes” on Question 1 to hold legislators and the governor accountable.

Vote “Yes” on Question 1 to send a clear message that wasting our taxpayer dollars must come to an end.

Rep. Hunt (R-Sandwich) is being opposed by Matthew M. Terry (D-Sandwich). Hunt replaced Jeff Perry as the state representative in the 2010 election in the 5th Barnstable District (Barnstable Precincts 11 and 12, Bourne Precincts 1, 2 and 7, all Sandwich Precincts) and Precinct 9 in Plymouth. To learn more about Rep. Hunt, visit his website here.

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