As the Deseret News reported Wednesday, Senate President Stuart Adams said adding the state’s sales tax to gas purchases — amounting to about 12 cents per gallon on top of the already 30 cents per gallon state gas tax (and the 18.4 cent federal tax) might be a temporary way to increase funding for transportation. At least, it could be for “the next little while,” until something better comes along.
The whole idea of the sales tax was grounded in the temporary. In Utah, it began in 1933 as a temporary tax for relieving the suffering of the poor during the Great Depression. It started at 0.75%, but before the year ended lawmakers voted to increase it to 2%. Sen. Patrick J. Fennell, who represented Eureka at the time, told the Salt Lake Telegram he would support the increase only if the money would be used exclusively for relief.
He got his wish, until 1955 when lawmakers figured they no longer needed a relief fund, so they put all sales tax revenue into the general fund, where it remains today. All that talk about a temporary tax 20 years earlier? Who remembered that?
I have no idea whether a sales tax on gasoline ever will make it into a proposed bill. If so, Utah wouldn’t be the first state to do this. California, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii and Illinois also add sales taxes to gas, on top of gas taxes.
But at this point we’ve gone from the idea of taxing haircuts, gardening and lawyerly advice to restoring the full tax on food, to opening the income tax to things other than schools, and now to the gas pump. Maybe there are other dusty roads yet to be traversed before something comes to a vote.
I just wish the discussions, the back-and-forth arguments and the reasons behind them, were held in the open.
At least State Senate leaders have been willing to talk about the package of reforms they were expected to review in their closed-door caucus meetings Wednesday. But the public wasn’t allowed to watch. That’s a little too reminiscent of the way a tax-reform bill was sprung on the public with only two weeks to go in the regular legislative session earlier this year. That didn’t go too well, as some of the people about to get taxed woke up in time to make their voices heard.
Whatever emerges this time around needs to be made public with plenty of time for everyone to react and debate.
But back to the idea of a sales tax on gas. It wouldn’t address the problem. Sales tax revenues may not be growing as fast as income tax revenues, but gas revenues are having big problems of their own. With electric, hybrid and natural gas cars gaining ground, and with gas-driven cars becoming more fuel efficient, people are using less gasoline per mile driven.
Sticking a sales tax on top of a dwindling retail item would be a temporary solution, indeed — even though it’s hard to imagine such a sales tax, once enshrined, ever going away.
If lawmakers want people using roads to pay for the upkeep and construction of roads, why not put variable tolls on freeways? Everyone would pay, regardless of what type of fuel they used, and those who couldn’t afford to pay could take side roads that aren’t tolled.
Or why not impose a system that charges drivers for each mile driven, rather than for the gas they purchase? Several states are experimenting with forms of this. Many foreign countries have implemented programs that charge trucks this way.
A lot of people have speculated as to what voters really were saying last year when they overwhelmingly voted against a 10-cent hike in the gas tax. That measure, a non-binding ballot question, asked about raising the money for education, but it’s doubtful people were voting against increased funding for schools.
Maybe they thought the idea of a gas tax for schools was confusing. Or maybe, quite likely, they didn’t want a sharp increase in the cost of a product they all need to navigate daily life.
I doubt they would be too excited about adding a sales tax to gas, either.