Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Sen. Mike Lee and others have an op-ed in today’s paper expounding on a favorite idea of conservatives: Quit taking Utah’s gasoline tax dollars and then giving them back to us for federal road projects. Let us keep the money and do the projects without federal government workers getting their greasy hands all over the money first.
It is a tempting idea, but the editorial is long on hope and short on details. Since this is their idea, it behoves them to run the numbers and show us how this will work. Key points:
1 — How much money does the federal gasoline tax in Utah raise?
2 — How much does all federal road building and maintenance in Utah cost?
If the two match up, they can make a very simplistic argument for their case, but there are other questions.
1 — The assumption is that Utah’s road building plans will match the federal ones. The Interstate Highway System was built with mostly federal funds as a coordinated national defense project because during WWII the GIs noticed how spiffy the German Autobahns were for moving tank columns around.
But since one of the goals of this plan is to avoid pesky federal rules and regulations, who makes sure that Utah’s roads match the others?
Frankly, I think Utah should start driving on the left side of the road, like the British do. Really, local is better. Who cares how people in Idaho or Arizona want to drive?
2 — Who is to say that Utahns will sit still for having their taxes increased to pay for all those projects? If the price of gasoline drops, one could argue to Utahns that they need to divert that savings to the state, but does that not then represent a new state tax? And are we not in the era of “No New Taxes!” ?
Yes we are.
You could ague that Utah should not actually reduce the price of gasoline, just divert the tax revenue to the state. But if we’re going to stick it to the feds, I want to see the savings right now. Talk to me about new projects later. I might not want to pay for a new highway to Idaho if all it does is make it easier for people in Idaho to drive here. Maybe I want my own street repaved first, and who is better at deciding local needs than me?
It is hard to avoid the suspicion that the only reason state people want to keep the feds from getting their greasy fingers all over our tax money is because the state people want to get their greasy fingers all over it instead.
As several commenters on the story on our web page have noted, UDOT paid off an angry unsuccessful bidder last year with $13 million of someone’s tax dollars, a sure indication that (a) someone has too much money to play with and (b) when the money is big enough, you can’t trust state officials any more than you can trust federal officials.