Hands off the gas tax.
Oregonians made a mistake when they voted in 1980 to stop paying for state police with money from the gas tax. The state police have been starved for funding ever since. But Gov. John Kitzhaber proposes correcting that 30-year-old error in a way that would in fact compound it. The Legislature should reject his plan to move state police patrols back under the gas tax umbrella.
Oregon's gas tax rose by 6 cents per gallon on Jan. 1. It was the first increase in 17 years, and resulted from one of the most significant achievements of the 2009 Legislature - the Jobs and Transportation Act. For nearly two decades, a period that included Kitzhaber's first two terms as governor, the Legislature had been unable to win approval of a gas tax increase because of opposition from lobbyists representing motorists, truckers, anti-tax groups or all three.
The Jobs and Transportation Act passed because the big lobbying groups conceded, sometimes grudgingly, that Oregon's highways and bridges were deteriorating. The cost of labor and materials had climbed since the last gas tax increase in 1993, while improvements in fuel economy had caused a decline in gas-tax revenue per mile traveled. The 6-cent gas tax increase will generate about $220 million every two years, allowing the state to catch up on road maintenance while also creating an estimated 5,000 jobs in construction.
Kitzhaber proposes using gas taxes to pay for state police patrols, restoring what is now a $90 million biennial budgetary obligation to the state highway trust fund. The shift would soak up nearly half of the new gas tax revenue that will flow from the 6-cent increase that just took effect. The groups that supported the Jobs and Transportation Act, or agreed not to oppose it, would have reason to feel betrayed if a big gas tax were approved for one purpose, and then much of its revenues were used for something else.
Not only would a gas-tax diversion represent a breach of trust, Kitzhaber's proposal is also predicated on unwarranted political assumptions. Any diversion would need to be approved by the voters, because the 1980 ballot measure restricting the use of gas-tax funds came in the form of a constitutional amendment. Since then voters have rejected proposals to modify the restriction - including two proposals specifically intended to allow gas tax funds to be used to support the state police. If voters were to reject the diversion a third time, the state would have to scramble to find room for state police patrols in the general fund budget.
As part of the political bargain in 2009, the Legislature agreed to bar cities and counties from imposing new or increased local gas taxes for three years after the state's 6-cent increase took effect. Local governments went along, because they are entitled to a share of revenue from the 6-cent increase. Kitzhaber's proposal would greatly reduce cities' and counties' share while leaving their hands tied by the three-year ban on new or increased local gas taxes.
Giving the state police a dedicated source of revenue is a good idea. But that source shouldn't be carved out of an existing revenue stream in a way that shatters confidence in the state's promises. Kitzhaber's proposal, if approved, would guarantee that it would be at least another 17 years before Oregonians trusted the state with any further gas tax increases, for highways or for other purposes - including, perhaps, the state police.