Gas taxes pay for bridges, highways, and other transportation projects, and passing ballot Question 1 — which would prevent the state gas tax from rising with inflation — would make it harder for the Commonwealth to keep people and goods moving around. Voters should reject this measure.
Like most states and the federal government, Massachusetts now taxes gasoline by the gallon to pay for roadway construction, repair, and maintenance. The gas tax also helps pay for public transportation — without which traffic congestion would be unimaginably worse. The state Legislature voted to increase the levy last year from 21 cents to 24 cents, the first increase in decades, and added a provision that will automatically raise the rate to keep pace with inflation. That’s the section that Question 1 targets. If passed, the referendum would end the automatic increases, meaning the amount of gas tax collected from each gallon would steadily lose its buying power.
Proponents of the ballot question say they aren’t against gas taxes, but instead have what is basically a philosophical objection to indexing the gas tax, or any other tax, to inflation. Each of the automatic increases, they argue, represents a separate tax hike — a form of taxation without representation, because the Legislature won’t vote each time.
But this argument is disingenuous. Characterizing the increases as a hike ignores how inflation affects buying power. Raising the cents-per-gallon tax in sync with inflation ensures that the pinch will feel the same as time goes on, not that it’ll go up. Other familiar forms of taxation, like income, sales, and property taxes, also rise naturally over time, because they’re assessed as a percentage of a dollar figure that goes up as incomes rise and goods and property become more expensive. An elected Legislature passed the law, and nothing in the law prevents future Legislatures from changing, reducing, or eliminating it.
Not every change to the tax system needs to pass a legislative vote. The federal standard deduction, for instance, changes every year, without a vote of Congress, and nobody seriously considers that an affront to democracy.
The most credible argument against the gas tax is one that the supporters of Question 1 don’t really make: The gas tax isn’t an adequate long-term response to the state’s transportation needs, and the state needs a longer-term plan to shift to a new model. When the gas tax went into law, gas purchased was a rough proxy for miles driven, so that people who used the roads more paid more for their upkeep. But fuel efficiency has been rising. Electric cars, which pay no gas tax at all, are quickly becoming a reality. Over the long term, states and the federal government must update the transportation funding system to restore a linkage between what drivers pay and the wear and tear they put on highways — for instance, through a vehicle-miles traveled tax, or more extensive tolling. Until then, though, hobbling the existing gas tax would do nothing but damage the state’s economy.