U2’s iconic song about the perfect streets of heaven, entitled “Where the Streets Have No Name,” is worth longing for, but currently has little to do with the streets of Alabama. Before the Alabama Governor’s race, we heard repeated messages of our disastrous road and bridge system. That message crescendoed, but then quickly disappeared, before campaign season.
Like myself, Governor Ivey signed a promise of No-New-Taxes (with the American Center for Tax Reform), a promise which will be broken if she signs this gas tax into law, without offsetting decreases. According to a recent poll, a huge majority of Alabamians don’t want the gas tax increase, and the Alabama GOP even voted against it. But is there another way?
A mistake made by Montgomery is that they are treating this as a binary decision; “yes” or “no”, to a tax. This should be part of a broader effort to increase our competitive position within the Southern U.S. region. Clearly, the broader US economic boon has masked our state’s weaknesses. We are enjoying the “rising tide” due to Trump’s economic wins, not by game-changing policy initiatives at the state level. Reform is needed to poise us for the future.
A gas tax was tried a few years before the 2018 elections, as fuel prices dropped, and other states enacted their own increases. But, in a state where crippling budget earmarks dominate fiscal policy, people say they just don’t trust Montgomery, so that’s why we need earmarks. The irony is that if you don’t trust Montgomery, you then must accept more taxes. It’s Montgomery’s only solution to funding. Re-prioritizing budget dollars is not possible with earmarking, so funding for critical needs like education is left short-handed. Budget earmarks are damaging Alabama’s ability to enact needed reforms, permitting special interests and departments to hide waste and ineffective programs.
We can rightfully accuse Montgomery of enacting laws to please special interests. That is especially true when it comes to our tax code. It is riddled with special tax carve-outs to certain industries and groups. The practice is eating away our education budget. If Alabama received a benefit, like increased jobs, it would make sense; but this is not the standard. It’s like giving a financial development incentive to a company, but receiving nothing in return. The legislature would do well to mandate that all tax give-aways have a stated purpose and a sunset provision, so they can be reconsidered every 7 years. Doing so would enable us to lower our tax rates.
What Alabamians want is accountability for what they are already sending to Montgomery. This would mean discontinuing the transfer of $60+ mil. out of the Road & Bridge Fund for non-road purposes. Adequate funding is certainly needed for state divisions, but tax revenue raised under the guise of supporting roads and bridges, should be used for that stated purpose.
Along those lines, give Alabama a plan and execute that plan. Today, we have a plan, but Alabama Governors have used discretion to re-direct those dollars at-will to gain legislative votes. As the model states of Tennessee and Georgia now do, move the decision-making strategic plan of road building to a separate road and bridge commission. Take it away from the Governor. This was part of my platform for Governor, and I am delighted to see Senator Clyde Chambliss championing this concept. With it we can move away from the politics in the road and bridge building effort, sticking to a strategic long-range goal that addresses problems, not politics. With a clear plan in place, showing where at least 80% of the dollars will be spent, identifying the exact projects throughout the state, legislators and the public can see tangible results.
The Alabama legislature has an opportunity to lead and create tectonic reforms which will make us stronger in the lean times, and stellar in the rich times. By taking a metric such as state rankings to focus upon strategic policy initiatives, the state’s competitive positioning can improve, which will benefit Alabamians for generations to come. Surrounding states are not standing still in their effort to reform, nor should we. Our infrastructure should be addressed, but not by passing a tax increase. We are missing the greater opportunity to implement broad budget reform to improve our state’s trajectory upward.
And if we cannot match the “Streets With No Name”, perhaps we can at least reach. For if our reach is not beyond our grasp, what on earth would heaven be for.