It’s Official: Congress’s Next Spitting Contest Will Be Over the Gas Tax

Since the 112th Congress convened in January, the federal government almost shut down, the government almost defaulted on its debts, and the FAA was temporarily shuttered. It’s the Crisis Congress, thriving on the chaos of catastrophe. Next up: a bruising fight over funding the transportation system.

Grover Norquist wasn't content to just bring us to the brink of default. Photo by Gage Skidmore

A few weeks ago, Ben Smith at Politico mentioned in a short post that the gas tax was expiring September 30. If not extended, all but 4.3 cents of the 18.4-cent federal gas tax would disappear. Extending the gas tax has always been an easy, bipartisan move that happened more or less automatically. (Raising it to a reasonable level is another story entirely.)

When Smith first wrote about the gas tax expiration, it was the first some had heard of the issue. Others were monitoring it cautiously, just in case the Tea Party or other antitax crusaders decided to kick up a stir. But media reports confirm that those forces are preparing for battle.

House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica has proposed a bill based on the current gas tax, and his office has confirmed that he supports keeping it at 18.4 cents. But according to Platts news service, Republican members on key committees are “still deciding what to do about the federal gasoline tax.”

The demigod of the tax-haters, Grover Norquist, has decided to take up the banner, after enough news organizations asked if he was going to. “ATR will be urging people to look at ending the federal gas tax either cold turkey or phasing it out as soon as possible and allowing states to simply go raise their own taxes, rather than send the money to Washington and get it back with strings,” Norquist told Platts in an email.

Even other right-wing small-government types part company with Norquist there. Politico quotes Heritage Foundation and Reason Foundation experts as saying the gas tax “has to” be renewed and that a “cold turkey” end to the gas tax, as Norquist appears to be pondering, would be “chaotic.”

That seems to be fine by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) of “You lie!” fame. (Chaos is sort of his thing.) His local TV network, WJBF, quotes Wilson as questioning the federal gas tax. “Sadly, it has been used in large cities to subside a transportation system, the subway systems of New York, Chicago, San Francisco. We need to look at this carefully. And, I believe the money should be spent where it is raised and that is by the drivers of Georgia and South Carolina.”

Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio doesn’t put it past the GOP to play politics with the most basic funding mechanism of our already-crumbling transportation system. “The Republicans will use the expiration of the program and the tax… for some sort of leverage or further blackmail,” said DeFazio, the top Democrat on the House Transportation Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. “If the ultra-right prevails, it has already been rumored they would end the gas tax, which would mean no more surface transportation trust fund.”

Gas tax receipts are up this year, according to the FHWA, generating about $22 billion so far in fiscal 2011, compared to a total $32 billion for all of FY 2010, says Platts. Gas taxes make up 90 percent of the balance of the Highway Trust Fund.

Meanwhile, Republican Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Tom Coburn, as well as Reps. Jeff Flake and James Lankford, have introduced separate bills to drastically alter the way gas taxes are collected and distributed. They would rather a system more to the liking of Rep. Wilson, with states keeping their own gas tax money and spending it as they see fit, rather than sending it to Washington and then getting it back.

“Donor” states complain when they don’t get back as much as they sent. Indeed, Wilson’s home state only got back 85 cents on the dollar in 2009. But that money wasn’t primarily going to New York and San Francisco. Alaska was raking in $3.70 for every dollar it shelled out. Montana and North Dakota also took back more than twice what they sent. (That information is from the Heritage Foundation, by the way [PDF].)

Of course, asking states to take on more of the burden for raising transportation revenues might assuage some small-government types, but asking a bunch of cash-strapped states to take this on in the middle of a recession is rough stuff. And it’ll just turn states into the next battleground for tax foes.

The same argument even Democrats use to justify not raising the gas tax is the same argument some will wield in defending the idea of repealing it altogether. Doug Heye, former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, told Politico that gas prices are “really affecting families. If you have to drive 20 miles to work every day, those are real costs.” He predicted that “there will be Republicans who will be resistant” to renewing the tax.

As CNNMoney said at the beginning of its story on the brewing fight, “You may want to consider investing in some good shock absorbers for your car this fall.” (Make that “knobby tires for your bike,” Streetsbloggers.) After all, if gas tax receipts fall, road maintenance – already miserably underfunded – will suffer even more.