A fuel tax chance missed?

School BusUh oh.

Perhaps it’s best seen as a good news/bad news scenario.

Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire has proposed a new excise tax on the wholesale cost of gasoline and diesel fuel to raise $368 million in its first two years and more than $940 million in 2017-19.

That’s the good news. A Governor willing to bite the bullet when it comes to fuel taxes.

But all of the money raised will be devoted to pupil transportation in K-12 schools.

That’s not bad news per se, heaven knows we want students to get to school safely, and, after all, the Governor was charged by the state Supreme Court with finding the money to do it.

But Governor Gregoire could have looked elsewhere for the money. And she might have, had the transportation infrastructure industry been more effective in convincing her – and the people of the state – that a fuel tax increase devoted entirely to transportation (a user fee) was the most efficient and fairest way to take care of the state’s highways and bridges. I mean, she did propose the tax increase so that part of the battle was possible to win from the start.

But she knows her stuff. The proposal calls for an excise tax on wholesale fuel. If she had just slapped a raise on the fuel tax at the pump the state constitution would have directed all the money raised to transportation funding.

Let me sidetrack for a moment: in Europe fuel taxes are very high. In Germany for example they are particularly high. But the tax money is not destined only for transportation, it goes into the general fund and transportation takes some of that money back.  The American model erected in the Eisenhower years dedicated fuel taxes to transportation, and its essential integrity is that what you pay at the pump all goes into the roads you drive. And what you pay at the pump in fuel tax per gallon, 18.3 cents, hasn’t been raised since last century.

A raised fuel tax is a way to find vitally necessary funds that we now can’t find and increasingly can’t borrow, for our transportation infrastructure. What if Governor Gregoire’s model gets other state chief executives — and, perish the thought, the Administration in DC — thinking along her lines? Transportation infrastructure may find an already uphill climb pressing for a higher fuel tax to be included in MAP-21’s reauthorization due in the fall of 2014, an impossibly steep slope.

Governor Gregoire dared to use a rare political weapon in announcing her tax. She turned to common sense.

“The facts are, we can, we do, live within our means. But we need revenue if we are going to meet our constitutional and moral responsibility to fund education,” Gregoire said