Texas’ Republican House Speaker Joe Straus has said he is “open” to raising gasoline taxes. While everyone is concerned about the problems with transportation in Texas, it seems Mr. Straus (R-San Antonio) can only envision them being addressed first with higher taxes.
He told news radio KLBJ this week he is open to a concept known as “indexing.” The radio news reporter labeled it for what it is: raising taxes. But it is worse than that; indexing puts tax hikes on auto pilot. With one vote of the Legislature, the gasoline tax would increase every year, without accountability.
That is many things, Mr. Speaker, but it isn’t leadership, and it’s certainly not conservative leadership.
Straus told the radio station, “It’s been very frustrating that we’ve had for a number of sessions now no real answers to our highway funding problem.”
That’s incorrect. There have been many first-step solutions offered (such as using private equity to build new roads) and first-step efforts (ending diversions and asking for greater local transparency). Not to mention that major cities in Texas have successfully integrated tolling into their local road construction efforts.
I have never heard the Speaker say he was “open” to finding market-driven approaches to road construction or that he supported the ending of diversions. Indeed, it was the moderates and spenders who played lip service to ending diversions while pushing for higher taxes and fees.
To be fair, maybe Mr. Straus just missed that a clear bipartisan majority of the Texas House voted against efforts this spring to raise the gas tax. And perhaps he hasn’t seen the national mood — highlighted this week in the New Jersey and Virginia elections — in which voters are clearly signaling their disgust with tax-first, spend-more schemes.
Straus should be similarly worried that Republicans lost the NY 23 congressional race because they anointed a candidate who didn’t lead with center-right positions.
It is troubling that Texas’ third-highest ranking elected official cannot bring himself to say, “I am not open to raising taxes in a down-economy,” or even “I want to consider all transportation reform options.”
Indeed, one has to wonder why the Speaker couldn’t lead with “let’s push for greater transparency and accountability in the spending, and end every diversions, then we can talk about taxes.”
For example, in the current budget more than 40 percent of the gasoline tax – levied to build and maintain roads – is spent on non-road purposes.
If the Republican House leadership is going to be allowing gasoline tax hikes as their first answer, then perhaps he should look carefully at the election results from New Jersey and Virginia. In an election season shaping up to winning one for Republicans, Speaker Straus (who one might reasonably expect to want to get more Republicans elected), may have found the formula for losing: leading with tax hikes to solve problems.
Here are four things Speaker Straus and the Legislature should do long before considering tax hikes or new revenue sources:
1. End the gas-tax diversions. Put every state gas-tax dollar into road construction and maintenance.
2. Enact strong transparency for every local and regional entity that receives gas-tax money, so the dollars can be easily tracked online.
3. Enact strong accountability for each gas-tax dollar, forbidding tax-funded lobbying while allowing the state comptroller to or auditor to audit those entities books.
4. Require that congestion-relief drive spending decisions by allocating gas-tax dollars only to those projects bringing the greatest relief, and not to boondoggles like “light-rail.” (Show such a system anywhere that pays for itself? Doesn’t exist.)