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Federal gasoline tax celebrates 20 years without an increase

My clothes felt a bit snug as I got dressed this morning and I couldn't figure out why.

Then I realized it's all the cake I've been enjoying in connection with recent special tax commemorations.

This latest belated celebration is for the federal gas excise tax.

Gas is expensive at the Canoncito station, but you might find -- Breaking Bad spoiler alert -- a nice watch atop that pay phone.

On Oct. 1, 1993, the gas tax went from 14.1 cents per gallon to 18.4 cents per gallon. Sorry I missed the big day, but Congressional fighting over Obamacare and the subsequent federal government shutdown sort of stole this tax's anniversary thunder.

But it's definitely worth noting, even a few days late, that it has been 20 years since the last federal gas tax hike. That time period is this week's By the Numbers figure.

Gas tax history: The first federal fuel levy was signed into law by President Herbert Hoover in 1932. Back then it was 1 cent per gallon, or the current day equivalent of about 17 cents per gallon.

The gas tax was just a small part the taxes included in the 1932 Revenue Act. The measure contained dozens of other taxes on a variety of consumer products and transactions, including admissions to any place by ticket or subscription; auto bodies, tires and inner tubes; cameras, candy, chewing gum, furs, soft drinks and sporting goods; firearms, shells and cartridges; coal, coke and copper ore; telegraph, telephone, cable and radio dispatches; and checks, jewelry, matches, refrigerators, stamps and toiletries.

And you thought our current Congress was bad about batching taxes. Some things never seem to change. But I digress. Back to today's tax honoree.

Once the fuel tax was on the books, it was regularly increased to help pay the cost of building and maintaining America's roads, railways and bridges.

Tax hikes hit wall: So why did gas tax hikes stop even though our infrastructure continued to age and inflation raised the cost each year of constriction and repairs?

Six words: Read my lips. No new taxes.

President George H.W. Bush, in accepting the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, used those words to underscore his promise to not raise any taxes. Not only did it help him win the White House, the pledge gave the modern day anti-tax movement a huge boost.

Unfortunately for the no-new-taxes folks, Bush 41 broke his promise. But the anti-tax faction had a rallying cry and a rededication to their no-tax objective.

Since 1993, staunch GOP opposition to a gas tax has helped defeat attempts to raise the federal fuel levy. True, some Democrats also oppose the increase. Cynics might say the gas tax opposition on both sides of the aisle is fueled by campaign contributions that Republican and Democratic legislators receive from big oil.

They also hear from constituents. Lots of American drivers who've watching pump prices climb at times to near (or more than) $4 a gallon oppose any add-on that would increase what they pay to refuel their vehicles.

The truth is, however, that domestic gas prices are influenced more by world oil markets volatility than by taxes. Refinery issues also affect pump prices. So do state fuel taxes and fees.

But when you combine Americans' love of their autos with their distaste for taxes, you get a strong political argument against gas tax hikes.

What's wrong with the gas tax? The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) last month issued a report on why our gas tax revenue is not meeting America's transportation needs.

A Federal Gas Tax for the Future concludes that the growing number of fuel-efficient vehicles (hybrids and electric autos) account for just 22 percent of the current gas tax revenue shortfall.

That still hasn't stopped some states, such as Virginia, from adding a new vehicle registration fee on fuel-efficient vehicles as a way to make their drivers, who don't fill up as often and therefore don't pay as much in gas taxes, pay their share of transportation funds.

The other 78 percent of lost gas tax revenues, says the ITEP report, is due to inflation. The growth in the cost of asphalt, machinery and other transportation construction factors have outpaced the money provided via the 20-year-old 18.4 cents per gallon gas tax.

Some other findings from ITEP's study:

  • The gas tax is the single most important source of transportation funding for the federal government -- raising over $30 billion per year (or 85 percent of the revenue flowing into the nation’s transportation spending account).
  • Despite that amount, over the last five years Congress has had to transfer more than $53 billion from the general fund to the transportation fund to compensate for lagging gas tax revenues.
  • By 2015, the federal transportation fund will be insolvent unless an additional $15 billion transfer is made. 

Or, with regard to that 2015 warning, the gas tax is raised to bring in substantially more money.

Will cracking roads and crumbling bridges change taxpayer and lawmaker gas tax minds? Probably not until more of them are completely undriveable.

Until we all face reality, you might want to put on a life jacket the next time you go across a bridge over a major waterway.

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Here in MD the anti-tax crowd (as represented by the GOP blogosphere) thinks Gov. O'Malley is guilty of (I can't help myself) "highway robbery" for raising the gas tax after 20 years. Of course, when the real estate market tanked, property & transfer fees dried up so the transportation fund was raided to balance the budget, exacerbating the problem described here.

The real problem is wage stagnation, not taxation, but God forbid we attempt any governmental solutions.

It's now survival of the well-connected in the good ole US of A. Every thing is perceived as a zero-sum game; the rising tide theory (which was the status when we had wide-scale unionization) has gone the way of the dinosaur in the low-info voting population.

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