When we talk about a government that runs like a household, we say things like, “We would never take out a loan to buy groceries.”
Let’s apply that same good logic to our highways and bridges, since that looks like the hot button issue of the next session of the Tennessee General Assembly in Nashville.
If you were running a household in which you had budgeted the same amount of money for groceries for 25 years, you would not expect to be able to buy as many groceries today with that money as you could buy 25 years ago, right? And you certainly wouldn’t expect to feed everyone in your family the same amount of food per person as you did 25 years ago if you’d added a child or two during that time without increasing the food budget. The price of food has gone up and the relative buying power of consumers has gone down due to that same inflation.
Wages and salaries have to keep up with inflation, or you’re in a state of relative decline. Even if you get a raise every year, that raise has to be more than the rise in the rate of inflation, or you’re going backwards.
That’s where Tennessee stands on its ability to pay for road repairs (I’m not even going to talk about new projects yet, let’s just concentrate on keeping the highways and bridges we have now in working order). We have had the same formula in place for funding our highway work since 1989.
Now, in our grocery illustration, the price of food went up. Well, the price of doing roadwork has gone up since 1989. And in our grocery illustration, the number of mouths to feed on the same funding plan went up. Well, the number of motorists creating wear and tear on our highways and bridges has increased. But there’s one place where the grocery illustration falls short. If this were truly analogous to our state highway situation, we would not have the same amount of money to buy groceries today we had 25 years ago. We would have less. We would have been trying to buy the same amount of groceries on a lower salary. Because the funding for state highways and bridges comes mainly from the gas tax, which is simply the state collecting a certain amount of money for every gallon of gas sold in Tennessee. Even with more drivers on the road, improved fuel efficiency since 1989 means we are buying fewer gallons of gas.
As a bureaucrat might say, we have reached the point of unsustainable imbalance.
It’s highly likely that the raise in highway repair funding would come – at least in part – in the form of an increase in the gas tax. If you believe that all tax increases are evil and should be voted down at all costs, here are your other options:
Install toll roads and bridges. Each would help pay for the cost of upkeep, and users are the ones who pay. It’s inherently fair. It’s also a huge pain in the posterior to manage, creating a new bureaucracy and often (if you look at existing toll roads and bridges around the country) failing to raise enough money anyway. It’s a tax, but non-users don’t pay.
• Take out a loan to pay for the groceries. Tennessee has always paid for its roads on a pay-as-you-go basis. Some of the states that have better roads are paying almost as much in debt service as we are paying for the upkeep of the roads themselves. We could start bonding out highways. Just to be clear, this is the Washington way.
• Raise some other tax or fee. Some folks have mentioned auto registration for this. It costs around $25 to register a car in Tennessee. That’s why, when you rent a car in Orlando, it has Tennessee plates. Many states are around $200. We’d have to go higher than that to meet our needs. But that’s still a tax.
• Stop repairing roads and bridges and watch the quality of our existing infrastructure quickly begin to deteriorate.
There are a lot of things government should not be spending money to fund. Roads and bridges do not fall into that category. Again, bear in mind, this has to happen just to maintain the highways we have now, and Tennessee needs to continue to be a fix-it-first state that repairs existing infrastructure before it funds new projects.
Being fiscally conservative doesn’t mean saying no to every potential tax increase. It means making sure government does its job efficiently. To do that, we have to at least fund the government well enough to do its job in the first place.
You don’t take out a loan to buy groceries. But you still have to budget enough money to feed your family, and it’s got to come from somewhere.