Joe Burns: Fairness is key to taxation

Joe Burns

Nineteen cents isn’t a lot — $20 billion is.

So it may seem strange that a proposal to pool pocket change and turn it into a $600-million-a-year resource that will help keep our state infrastructure sound is meeting such resistance.

A 19 cent a gallon gas tax is what Gov. Patrick is proposing to help meet an estimated $20 billion shortfall in cash needed to maintain the existing transportation infrastructure over the next two decades. And when you crunch the numbers, it sounds like a pretty painless proposal.

In the U.S., the average car gets 25 mpg and is driven between 12,000 and 15,000 miles a year. Using those figures, the tax increase would cost the average driver between $91 and $114 a year in added tax, assuming that all gas purchases are made in Massachusetts. That comes out to a mere 25 and 31 cents a day. So why are so many people up in arms over the increase?

Well, for starters, it was infrastructure improvement in the form of The Big Dig that got us into this hole in the first place. And resentment still runs high over that costly debacle.

Folks also remember when gas cost more than $4 a gallon. Back then there was talk of temporarily doing away with the tax, and now, with gas prices starting to creep up again and the summer spike just around the corner we’re being asked to accept an increase that would make us the state with the highest gas tax.

Still there’s no denying our infrastructure needs to be maintained and upgraded. That costs money. And with the state $900 million in the red, and a $3.5 billion minus sign on the horizon, we need to come up with a way to make ends meet.

Cuts to the state budget have narrowed the gap but much of the burden for those cuts has fallen on individuals who, at best, are barely able to bear the weight. Any further cuts to essential social, health and public safety services would be criminal. That means all of us ponying up and paying our fair share in taxes. But is a gas tax (which would be combined with a toll increases) the fairest way to pay?

A gas tax is a both a sales tax and a user fee, supposedly fair solutions that assure the cost of gas remains the same price for everyone regardless of their station in life, and that those make the most use of the roads pay the most.

But sales taxes aren’t fair taxes. Those with lower incomes pay a greater portion of their income in taxes for the same goods than those with higher incomes pay. Imagine some corporate CEO who makes more in one year than you’ll earn your entire life paying the same amount in income tax that you do. That’s a sales tax.

User fees aren’t always equitable either. While the tie-in between gasoline consumption and road maintenance — let those who use the roads bear the load — seems to make sense, it ignores the fact that our transportation infrastructure doesn’t only serve those behind the wheel and the cost of transportation is factored into just about everything in our life, including the cost of maintaining those roads. And if the added costs to the suppliers of those goods and services are passed on to us, then that’s another tax on our backs.

Then there’s the question of how it will impact small businesses struggling to survive and municipalities already dealing with a loss in state revenue. If some businesses earn less or fail or town budgets are sliced thinner, more workers may lose their jobs or have their hours reduced. And with that will come further reduction in the state’s major source of revenue — its income tax base — deepening the deficit even more. Not exactly the way to stimulate the economy, is it?

That brings us to the I word. Income tax isn’t popular with the populace, and when you consider the misuse of our hard earned dollars once they are placed in the hands of some elected officials, it’s not surprising. But if a tax is inevitable and the choice is one based on someone’s ability to pay or one that costs the unemployed as much as it costs the millionaire, I’ll take the former. And if that means I’m paying more than someone trying to feed a family of four or someone living on a disability or unemployment check, I don’t care. It’s only fair.

If you have an idea for a “Who Cares” column, you can call Joe Burns at 508-375-4936 or e-mail him at jburns@cnc.com.