GOP lawmakers draw criticism for calling tax hikes ‘user fees’

Republicans who control the Indiana Legislature have embraced the term "user fee" to describe the extra amount they want drivers to pay under their proposal to raise money for infrastructure projects.

It's a euphemism Democrats and conservative groups seized on Wednesday, emphasizing that no matter how the proposal is marketed, it's still a tax increase.

The GOP majority is facing a public relations challenge as it tries to sell a plan that would increase the state's 18-cents a gallon fuel tax by a dime while charging an additional $15 for vehicle registration.

The state's infrastructure—and the need to find new revenue to pay for improvements—is the top priority for the legislative session. But it's an awkward conversation for Republicans who over the last decade cut income, corporate and property taxes. Now, proposing tax increases, or "user fees," that will affect motorists of all economic backgrounds is difficult.

"A user fee or a tax increase—both are one-in-the-same," said Justin Stevens, state director for the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, the political arm of billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch. "They do that to avoid being seen as raising taxes, but they are raising taxes. Just be honest with us."

Rep. Dan Forestal, the ranking Democrat on the House transportation committee, added: "They think they can fool Hoosiers into thinking that a tax increase is a user fee. In the end it is still money out of their pocket."

Lawmakers have sought for several years to find a way to pay for improvements to the state's roads and bridges without borrowing money, tapping the state's $1.8 billion reserve fund or cutting other programs.

It's proven to be a vexing challenge. Gas taxes, which haven't been raised in over a decade, have declined sharply as a result of new fuel-efficient vehicles, cutting into the primary source of road funding for the state. On top of that, much of the sales tax also collected on fuel purchases is devoted to other programs.

That leaves the state struggling to pay the estimated yearly cost of infrastructure maintenance and upgrades that some estimates suggest could top $1 billion. In addition to raising taxes, some Republicans say tolling will likely be necessary in the future to meet that figure.

House Roads and Transportation Chairman Ed Soliday said the term "user fee" makes sense because the proposal would make motorists pay for a government service they use.

"This is an attempt to get people who use the system to pay for the system," the Valparaiso Republican said.

But many conservatives aren't buying it. They are using social media to target Republican lawmakers, some of whom have signed conservative activist Grover Norquist's pledge never to raise taxes.

But Soliday said Indiana's infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life and needs to be replaced. It's a challenge much of the country is facing, he said.

"Many of our cities have roads and streets that are over 75 years old," he said. Later he added: "We didn't single out the middle class. If you use it, you pay for it."

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