Transport and the Tea Party: How Conservatives Talk About the Gas Tax

The passage of health care legislation this week, while elating Democrats, has proven an equally potent motivator for conservatives advocates of states’ rights. Appearing on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show last night, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) was asked about the viability of the legal challenge to the health bill filed by 14 mostly conservative attorneys general.

jim_demint_1.jpgSen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) (Photo: The 44 Diaries)

DeMint’s reply included an interesting shout-out to transportation policy (emphasis mine):

[I]n fact, I think the states may be our only hope to stop this rampage of government takeovers at the federal level. If we had more states push back not only on health care, but on education, opening up their own energy supplies, on getting back their own transportation dollars, there are many things this federal government is doing that are outside the realm of the enumerated powers of the constitution.

That casual reference to state "transportation dollars" masks a long-simmering debate over the federal gas tax. For 17 years, Congress has declined to raise the tax (now 18.3 cents per gallon) or index it to inflation, despite polling that shows most of the public already thinks the latter move is settled law.

But lawmakers have shown an indefatigable will to fight over the dwindling gas tax revenues that the government does collect. Conservatives often push for states to get the maximum amount of their gas-tax dollars directed back home in the form of guaranteed highway spending — a boon to states with more drivers and newer roads, but a setback for states with older infrastructure and denser cities that diminish the need for auto use.

This conflict is known as the "donor-donee" issue. It does not split states along near ideological lines: California is the federal road program’s No. 1 "donor," with "donee" states concentrated in the northeast and mountain west, according to the lobbying group Coalition for Donor State Equity.

Nonetheless, DeMint’s invocation of transportation funding as a battleground for states’-rights advocates reflects an active rhetorical current on the right.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), during her unsuccessful gubernatorial bid last year, touted a proposal to let states withdraw entirely from the federal transportation system and keep their own gas-tax money within their borders. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) helped delay the 2005 federal transport bill until "donor" states were guaranteed a higher rate of return on their gas taxes — despite data showing that when federal taxes beyond transportation are considered, most of the biggest "donor" states hail from the northeast.

As the GOP, increasingly influenced by the tea-party movement, continues to press constitutional criticisms of federal policy, look for transportation to rear its head more often.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Jim DeMint is a repulsive blowhard. For every dollar his backwards, rotten dump of a state collects in taxes, it gets another 35¢ on top of that back from the feds. The rest of us who live in productive 1st-world states of the union are dragging these troglodytes along with us. DeMint is welcome to “keep” the -35¢ he wouldn’t be getting from the feds under some expansive interpretation of the 10th Amendment or whatever ultra-right theory the senator is relying upon these days. I doubt that will result in anything other than South Carolina being even more benighted and forgotten than it already is.

  • So, would we do well to take him up on his offer and introduce a bill in Congress that says states should get back their own transportation dollars?

    Then he would actually have to think about the issue and decide whether to
    1) support the bill and lose one-quarter of his state’s transportation funding or
    2) admit that the cars in his state are on the federal welfare rolls.

  • Mad Park

    @Jeffrey W Barker – youve hit the nail right on the head with your comment. I’m surprised (and a little miffed) that Streetsblog would even dignify this idea and this individual with a presence on the site. DeMint is a bigot in the broadest sense of the term and deserves no further attention from an otherwise intelligently run resource like Streetsblog.

  • State’s rights–didn’t work when tried with the Articles of Confederation. Failed when used the basis of the Confederacy. Empty rhetoric to pander to the base. Thank goodness greater minds don’t fall for this myopic parchioial nonsense.

  • Palmetto Bug

    The more backward you can keep your state, the easier it is for the knuckleheads to stay in charge. This has been SC’s history from the beginning.

    BTW, SC has the most dangerous roads in the US.

  • Jym Dyer

    =v= The teabaggers have this bizarre notion that public transit is “socialism” and cars aren’t. This entails ignoring the staggeringly-high subsidy that their cars enjoy.

    To help them along with this delusion, teabaggers are now sponsoring appearances of transportation “expert” Randal O’Toole, whose schtick is to cherry-pick cases where rail didn’t work out so well, and argues that cars and sprawl are better. Naturally, as a consummate corporate o’toole he works for a foundation propped up by oil companies.


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