Siddiqui: A user-fee is just a tax (not even in disguise)

November 11, 2017

I was recently struck by a post on Facebook that showed the increase in gas prices since President Trump took office. While I am not a supporter of President Trump and have very little good to say about him, I found this statement blaming him profoundly unfair.

I commented that this is similar to tactics used by the GOP during President Obama’s presidency. The response was that, since the GOP did it, it was fair for Democrats to do it now. My next response came from a lesson I was taught before I turned 4: Just because someone else does something wrong doesn’t make it right for me to do the same.

These posts are nothing more than partisan “hackery”. However, a discussion about the impact of Republicans in Indiana enacting a gas tax is important.

There are two fundamental questions. First, is it the responsibility of lawmakers to create a long-term, sustained commitment to the regular upkeep of our infrastructure? Second, how do we fund this commitment?

Indiana has had an interesting role as a model for our nation through Gov. Mitch Daniels’ “Major Moves” building program, which was largely funded by the outsourcing of the Indiana Toll Road. That deal brought in a major infusion of funds that paid for programs during his governorship. However, opponents argue that the money is now all spent and we have no additional revenue coming in. Mayor Greg Ballard did something similar in Indianapolis. Both men were rewarded by being re-elected to second terms.

There seems to be broad agreement among the public and our policymakers that roads, bridges and infrastructure should be maintained regularly. Not doing so can have devastating consequences. The issue is, how do we pay for this?

Policymakers can be honest with citizens and explain that there is a cost to living in a society with maintained roads, bridges and infrastructure and that we collectively must pay for that. However, that means higher taxes—and that flies in the face of the current GOP fascination with reducing taxes.

Taking a position against general tax increases means finding an alternative means of funding. Not being magicians, we fall to options like the gas tax (which is a tax increase), tolling our roads (which is a tax increase) or other ways of increasing needed public revenue (which is a tax increase). But we call them user fees or equitable taxes or something else other than a tax increase (even though they are tax increases).

The reality is that such use-taxes are anything but equitable. While a gas-tax increase might make my run to Starbucks for a latte more expensive, it also makes it more difficult for someone who lost a job to find another one.

The problem is that those who make policy are talking to folks who are thinking only of the increase in cost to run to Starbucks for a latte, rather than the person who needs to find a job.

This fascination with calling taxes something else has grown to epic proportions in Indiana. For example, school book fees are out of control. Indiana remains one of the few states that doesn’t provide public school students with free books.

Citizens must embrace the idea that a well-functioning society has a cost. That cost must be borne by its citizens. While some of us can afford to pay more, some will likely pay less and some will pay nothing. This is not a punishment for wealth and prosperity. It is a recognition that, with wealth and prosperity comes responsibility.•


Siddiqui is an attorney, has a doctorate from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IU and leads the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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