Gas tax increase ‘a real hard sell’ for lawmakers

Gov. Kay Ivey in her inaugural address last week emphasized her support for more investment in the state’s crumbling highway infrastructure, a signal she expects lawmakers to take a long, hard look at a “reasonable” increase in the state’s gasoline tax.
The gas tax is certain to be one of the primary issues legislators attempt to address when the return to Montgomery on March 5 for the 2019 session.
Alabama’s current state gas tax of 18 cents a gallon has been unchanged since 1992, when gasoline cost about $1.13 per gallon. According to the American Petroleum Institute, the state’s gas tax is among the lowest in the nation.
Proponents of a gas tax increase point out 18-cent tax is not generating enough money to maintain the state’s current highways and bridges, let alone fund new projects. The result is a crumbling infrastructure that includes thousands of bridges statewide that are more than 50 years old, many of them functionally obsolete, and roadways that are so congested in major metropolitan areas that traffic delays are the norm.
Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon recently summed up the problem in a comment made to the Associated Press: “You cannot build roads for the price of what we built them in 1992. If we are going to stay competitive in the economic growth of our state, and attract companies to produce jobs, we’ve got to have a good infrastructure in place.”
Sonny Brasfield, executive director with the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, said disagreements over the details of a transportation funding program led to previous downfalls in gas tax legislation, in both 2016 and 2017.
In the 2017 session, House leaders did not bring a proposed gas tax increase up for a floor vote after it became clear the measure did not have the votes to pass.
Tussles over how the money will be divided have surfaced, resulting in geographic factions pitting their interests against each other.
Those turf battles must be tempered if the gas tax has any hopes of passage, stressed McCutcheon in comments made Jan. 8 to freshmen lawmakers who will be joining the House of Representatives this session.
“As a legislator, you have two choices before you,” he said. “You can choose to be guided by your own ambitions, desires and personal interests, or you can choose to be led by a desire to make Alabama a better place for the constituents you represent.”
Getting the public to buy into that argument is the challenge.
The debates that will unfold will almost certainly hinge upon weighing the needs of a crumbling highway infrastructure against the financial constraints of a higher tax. It will be, as Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, told the Associated Press, a “real hard sell for a lot of people.”