Georgia will not be joining the states where serious consideration is being given to raising motor fuel excise taxes. What is sensible and possible in Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland and Nebraska is sensible but absolutely impossible in Georgia. Opposition to any tax increase has become an Article of Faith among conservative Republicans as unquestionable as their opposition to abortion and gun control. Any attempt to challenge economic dogma on taxes is likely to be terminated with a pious intonation of the phrase “job killer.”
Such discussions end before they begin because tax increases are like visits to the dentist. They are inevitable. They are the price that we pay for lack of discipline. And they are often avoided because we tend to discount the future. The child in each of us is ready to throw a tantrum at the prospect of either. They differ in that our tax tantrum is collective rather than individual, and therefore much louder and better organized. What grownup grownups know, however, is that the fiscal crises confronting our Federal and state governments will require tax increases. There are four three reasons why Georgians should start by raising the state excise tax on motor fuel.
First, whether or not the state of Georgia raises its gas taxes, the prices consumers pay for gasoline and diesel are going to increase. Prices at the pump this year may exceed their record highs of 2008. Big Oil will raise prices. Who should benefit from those higher prices? All of the benefit could go to Big Oil, which has been raking in $330 million a day. Alternatively, Georgians could use some of it to support their state government.
Second, gasoline is actually under-taxed at the Federal level. Canadian gas taxes are twice what they are in the United States. That might make sense if Canada was a major oil importer and the United States a major oil exporter, but the exact opposite is true. Where Canada is a major oil exporter, the United States imports $1 billion worth of oil every day. For the United States to encourage gas consumption with low gas taxes is obvious folly. The other wealthy oil importing countries impose gas taxes high enough to raise prices to the point where they discourage consumption. Beyond more government revenue and reduced oil imports, the benefits they receive include reduced traffic congestion, reduced traffic accidents and reduced carbon emissions. Less is more, and more and more.
Third, gasoline is under-taxed at the state level in Georgia. At only 7.5 cents per gallon, Georgia’s base excise tax on motor fuel is among the lowest in the United States. Neighboring South Carolina and Alabama charge 16 cents a gallon. Granted, Florida charges less than Georgia but then it depends on tourism and snowbirds. What that means is that Georgians are doing Floridians a very big favor. They make it cheaper for all those folks from the Northeast, Midwest and Eastern Canada to transit Georgia along I-75 on their way to spend their money in Florida.
Writing back in 1920, H.L. Mencken asserted that, “no article of faith is proof against the disintegrating effects of increasing information.” Obviously the Sage of Baltimore never met a Tea Party Republican. Mencken died in 1956, the same year that America began its massive Federal spending program on interstate highways. All that spending did more than build miles of highways. It guaranteed that American cities would be constructed for vehicles rather than for people—suburbs without sidewalks or neighborhood stores and inadequate public transportation—and those decisions are reflected in our behavior. Today Americans are dependent on their vehicles to do everything important in life. The evidence of the resulting isolation and alienation is impossible to miss: the visual pollution of billboards that obscures natural beauty, prosperity gospel megachurches, fleets of massive SUVs with names more appropriate to Arctic exploration than transporting the children of the sunbelt suburbs to soccer camp, and the reduction of political discourse to angry affirmations of conservative ideological belief. This is a description of a dystopia.
Every journey begins with a single step. Raising Georgia’s state excise taxes on gas and diesel cannot undue six decades of bad transportation and energy policy, but it could make a contribution to backing America out of this dead end.