Gas tax hike likely to dominate 2019 session (via Al.com)
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, shortly after taking office in April 2017, said she supported an increase in the state’s gasoline tax to fix up state roadways.
But there has been little talk about it on the campaign trail, where the mere hint of the word “tax” can be viewed negatively in a conservative state like Alabama.
Yet the needs are plain, as commuters are painfully aware of overloaded highways funneling into the state’s four largest metros, roadways that back up nearly every work day.
“We definitely need an investment on infrastructure,” Ivey said, when asked about the prospects of increasing the gasoline tax during a campaign stop in Fairhope last week. “I’m on record for supporting an investment on infrastructure on roads and bridges.”
Indeed, most candidates running for office this fall are pushing for more transportation spending once the new legislative session starts in 2019.
Tony Harris, spokesman with ALDOT, said the state is faced with a mounting list of unmet repairs and expansions. “We probably have knocking on the door of $10 billion of identified capacity needs that go beyond our revenues being adequate to address.”
But what would a new program look like? And how much more would motorists be willing to pay to make it happen?
Lawmakers, such as state Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, are holding town halls to gather input from constituents about the possibility of a tax increase. Others, like State Senator Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, are weighing possible alternative funding programs that could include the lottery.
Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, signaled interest last month in pushing forward with an increase to the gasoline tax. Revenue measures, such as gas tax increases, originate out of the Alabama House first before moving to the Senate.
The debate is likely to dominate legislative session next year.
Said Sonny Brasfield, executive director with the Association of County Commissions of Alabama: “From our perspective, there is general consensus that transportation funding will be one of the major issues of 2019.”
Those big-ticket items on the ALDOT list include a new Interstate 10 Bridge and Bayway widening project in Mobile and Baldwin counties;the completion of the Birmingham Northern Beltline; the Montgomery Outer Loop; and additional lanes along Interstate 565 in Huntsville.
In addition, the price-tag includes lane widening along 20 identified sections of rural two-lane highways and 20 sections of identified needs along federal highways.
Drew Harrell, executive director with the Alliance for Alabama’s Infrastructure, describes Alabama’s transportation needs as a “where do we start” scenario. He said that county governments have little revenue to address an estimated $400 million shortfall in meeting basic maintenance and resurfacing needs, and that he estimates it would cost around $390 million annually to begin addressing the state’s largest congestion-related projects.
“For 26 years, we’ve seen congestion grow,” said Harris. “Construction and capacity needs in this state have increased beyond a level of what we can sustain by the available revenues.”
The last time Alabama voted for an increase in the state’s fuel tax was in 1992, when gasoline cost about $1.13 per gallon.
That year, the Legislature agreed to increase the state’s portion of the tax by a nickel to 16 cents per gallon. The increase occurred one year before Congress voted in its last increase to the federal gas tax, to 18.4 cents a gallon.
“A gas tax is truly a user-based fee charged to those who use our roads, and Alabama has the 5th lowest state gas tax in the country,” said Harrell.
President Donald Trump, after being elected in 2016, pledged to roll out a massive nationwide infrastructure program and signaled support for increasing the federal gasoline tax for the first time since 1993. A federal tax increase would require a state match, something which Ivey has said she wants to support.
“Although there are important issues that our state legislators should be focused on, there are few that enjoy bipartisan support and generally speaking, infrastructure spending is one of those,” said Richard Fording, a political science professor at the University of Alabama. “There seems to be widespread agreement that Alabama’s roads and bridges are outdated and in need of improvement.”
Jess Brown, a retired political science professor at Athens State University, said that if Democrats regain majority status in the U.S. House in November, he could see Trump placing more of an emphasis on ushering through an infrastructure spending plan.
“The states will have to come up with matching dollars,” said Brown. “Then suddenly, (anti-tax) Republicans will have a degree of cover that to get the federal money, which is Trump’s initiative, we have to get the gas tax increase.”
He added, “The Republicans in Montgomery may get a little political cover, in a strange way, if Nancy Pelosi is the Speaker.”
In total, 27 states have raised or reformed their tax taxes since 2013.
Missouri could make it 28, depending on the outcome of a 10-cent increase, spread out over four years, which voters will get to decide via a statewide referendum on November 6.
Missouri hasn’t increased its 17-cent-per-gallon fuel tax since 1996.
Dave Robertson, chairman of the political sciences department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said that the state’s GOP-dominated Legislature, which holds a veto-proof majority much like Alabama, felt like they would be “punished in elections for raising taxes.”
But the Missouri Legislature, in 2017, created a bipartisan task force that recommended increased funding.
Robertson predicted that even if the referendum fails, lawmakers are likely to vote in an increase.
In Alabama, there is no concrete proposal on the table, and no task force in place to weigh proposals.
But there are plenty of ideas, especially during campaign season.
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, Ivey’s Democratic challenger, said he supports an infrastructure funding plan once pitched by the AAI that would hike the state fuel tax by 12 cents per gallon.
Said Harrell: “Citizens, both in Alabama and nationwide, have indicated they are willing to pay more in gas taxes if that money is spent only on the construction and maintenance of roads and bridges.”
The Maddox campaign is also criticizing Ivey and past Republican administrations for what they believe is improper diversions of road and bridge funds. According to an Alabama Department of Transportation spokesman, approximately $63.5 million is diverted annually to fund the Alabama Administrative Office of Courts and to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.
Of that, $35 million is diverted to the Office of Courts.
Harris at ALDOT said the diversions first occurred during former Gov. Bob Riley’s final budget at a time of economic struggles when the money was used to balance the state’s budget. He said that the money, if no longer diverted, would help prop up ALDOT’s maintenance program that includes resurfacing projects and bridge replacements.
A gasoline tax increase, though, is no sure bet to handle the financing.
Anti-tax conservatives are expected to provide some obstacles next year. Auditor Jim Zeigler, a favorite among tea party groups, said he plans to roll out in January his own version of a transportation plan that he dubs “Plan Z” – “As in zero tax increase, zero congestion on highways,” he claims.
Orr, chairman of the Senate Education Budget Committee, said there could be a way to tie a transportation program to an educational lottery, which has been floated by Maddox and others during the campaign trail.
Orr said the lottery, if approved by voters, would raise revenues to fund education and, in turn, give the state the flexibility to divert educational budgets to transportation.
“People say, ‘will you vote on the gas tax?’ I don’t know. Show me the bill,” said Orr. “If you tie the lottery in with it, that has to be a vote of the people and you have to amend the Constitution. That means more money for education with a large portion of the money going for infrastructure. And more people might be inclined to vote for it with more money for infrastructure and education.”
Orr, in 2017, also pitched legislation that would have allowed county commissions to ask voters in their counties to raise gasoline taxes for specific road projects.
Brasfield, the head of the county commissions association, said that disagreements over the details of a transportation funding program led to previous downfalls in legislation, in both 2016 and 2017.
“The legislative efforts did, however, raise awareness of the condition of roads and bridges in every county in Alabama,” Brasfield said. “Today, more than half of our county bridges are over 50 years old. And more than 60 percent of our county roads have not even been resurfaced in the last 20 years. waiting any longer will only make these conditions worse.”
Drummond, the state lawmaker from Mobile, said past debates about a gas tax increase excluded revenue for critical programs for urban areas. She said she is unsure on what type of bill will surface next year.
Drummond, who is not facing a Republican opponent in next month’s election, said the timing was right to bring the issue forward to a group of senior citizens at a town hall meeting earlier this month in Mobile.
After polling an audience of approximately 140 people, she said that most appeared to support the concept of a gas tax hike if the money was used for its intended purpose.
“One thing is for sure,” she said. “Alabama’s infrastructure is crumbling.”