As we've argued in past Digest articles, there are good reasons for relying on gas tax revenues to fund transportation -- at least when an effort is made to offset the tax's stark regressivity. To the extent that the gas tax falls most heavily on those people who drive the furthest distances, or who drive the heaviest vehicles, there are certainly some advantages to the gas tax. But when the people driving the furthest distances are doing so because they can't afford to live near their places of work, for example, that advantage becomes much less appealing. In this light, recent news regarding the funding of transportation has been both good and bad. While states are seemingly beginning to come around to the idea that gas taxes will need to be raised to provide an adequate transportation infrastructure, interest in offsetting the tax's regressivity has yet to pick up steam.
Support for increasing the gas tax has gained some notable momentum in New Hampshire and Massachusetts as of late, and in Oregon, the Governor even included a small gas tax hike in his recent budget proposal. Utah has taken the idea to another level, as top officials are reportedly considering both increasing and restructuring the state's gas tax. In Vermont, however, while raising the gas tax has gotten some attention, the more prominent proposal has been to simply obtain permission from the federal government to continue using federal highway dollars without having to match that money with state funds (of which it has none). But while there are persuasive reasons for considering aid to the states as one form of stimulus for our troubled economy, one has to wonder why some Vermonters are apparently more averse than these other four states to the idea of paying for their own transportation network.
Unfortunately, while there has been an increasing acceptance of the fact that existing gas tax revenues are inadequate in many states, little notice has been given to the idea of offsetting the stark regressivity of gas tax hikes with low-income refundable credits. This idea was recently made a reality in Minnesota, and has been proposed by the Commonwealth Institute in Virginia as well. Notably, eight states already offer similar credits to offset the regressivity of the sales tax (usually designed specifically to offset the tax on groceries). Nineteen states and D.C. offer refundable EITC's, which while not designed specifically to offset regressive taxes, could perhaps be used in a similar matter. In states in need of additional transportation dollars, coupling any transportation related tax increases with the enactment of a low-income refundable credit, or the enhancement of an existing credit, should be a top priority.