Since 2013, eighteen states have enacted laws either increasing or reforming their gas taxes to boost funding for transportation infrastructure. A snapshot of gas tax rate changes scheduled to occur this upcoming January 1st, however, reveals that five states will actually move in the opposite direction as 2016 gets underway.
Gas tax rates will decline in New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and West Virginia—in most cases because of gas tax rate structures that link the rate to the average price of gas (an approach similar to a traditional sales tax applied to an item’s purchase price). But cutting gas tax rates is problematic because doing so reduces funding for economically vital transportation infrastructure investments. And with drivers already benefiting from gas prices that have just reached a six-year low, the timing of these rate cuts is difficult to justify.
Given these realities, many states have recently taken steps to limit gas tax volatility by imposing “floors” on the minimum tax rate, limitations on how much the rate can change from one year to the next, and in some cases even moving toward entirely different formulas based on more stable (and arguably more relevant) measures of inflation.
While five states will be forced to grapple with the consequences of reduced transportation revenue, there are four states where gas tax rates will actually rise on January 1: Florida, Maryland, Nebraska and Utah. In addition to those increases, Washington State has a gas tax increase scheduled for July 1st and governors in states such as Alabama and Missouri have said they intend to pursue gas tax increases during their upcoming legislative sessions. With lower gas prices having become the norm for now, lawmakers in those states that have gone years, or even decades, without raising their gas taxes should give real consideration to enacting long-overdue updates to their gas tax rates
The five states that will see their gas tax rates decline on January 1st include:
- West Virginia (1.4 cent cut), New York (0.8 cent cut), and Vermont (0.27 cent cut) will see their gas tax rates fall because their rates are tied to the price of gas, which has been declining in recent months.
- North Carolina (1.0 cent cut) was scheduled to see an even larger decline in its gas tax rate due to falling gas prices, but lawmakers intervened in 2015 to limit the size of the cut and its impact on the state’s ability to invest in infrastructure. Moving forward, North Carolina will also have a somewhat more stable gas tax because of a reform that removed a linkage to gas prices and instead tied the rate to population growth and energy prices more broadly.
- Pennsylvania (0.2 cent cut) is the only state in this group whose decline is not directly linked to falling gas prices. A reform approved by lawmakers in 2013 included a modest tax rate cut in 2016, though notably, this cut is bookended by significantly larger increases in 2014, 2015, and 2017.
And in the four states where gas tax rates will rise:
- Florida (0.1 cent increase) is seeing its tax rate rise due to a forward-thinking law, in place for more than two decades, that links the state’s gas tax rate to growth in a broad measure of inflation in the economy (the Consumer Price Index).
- Maryland (0.5 cent increase) is implementing a rate increase as a result of the U.S. Congress’ failure to pass legislation empowering states to collect the sales taxes owed on purchases made over the Internet. In 2013, Maryland lawmakers enacted a transportation funding bill that they had hoped would be partially funded by requiring e-retailers to collect sales tax. Rather than trusting Congress to act, however, state lawmakers also built in a backup funding source: an increase in the state’s gas tax rate from 3 percent to 4 percent of gas prices this January 1st, plus a further increase to 5 percent on July 1 if Congress continues to delay action.
- Nebraska (0.7 cent increase) and Utah (4.9 cent increase) are seeing their gas tax rates rise because of legislation enacted by each state’s lawmakers in 2015. The Nebraska law (enacted over the veto of Gov. Pete Ricketts) scheduled 1.5 cent rate increases for each of the next four Januarys, though more than half of this year’s scheduled increase was negated by a separate provision linking the state’s gas tax rate to (currently falling) gas prices. In Utah, the 4.9 cent increase is the first stage of a new law that could eventually raise the state’s gas tax rate by as much as 15.5 cents, depending on future inflation rates and gas prices.
Earlier this year, lawmakers in states such as Georgia, Kentucky, and North Carolina realized that allowing gas tax rates to fall would harm their ability to invest in their states’ infrastructure. As a result, each of those states acted to limit scheduled rate cuts and curtail the volatility of their gas tax rates moving forward. Without question, linking gas tax rates to some measure of growth (be it gas prices, inflation, or fuel-efficiency) is a valuable reform that can improve the long-run sustainability of this important revenue source. But as the gas tax cuts taking effect next month demonstrate, that linkage should be done in a way that manages potential volatility in the tax rate.