Can they cut the mustard?

As Americans stand divided on tax increases, new Congress must decide on a big one

Article December 16, 2002
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Perhaps governments at the local, state and federal levels
should have a few hot dog sales.

During my brief and rather insignificant political career at
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, where I diligently served as Boomer
Hall Council president, there was a time when my regime faced financial ruin. I
never did favor our treasurer. He basked in the
"I-have-no-direction-in-life-so-I'll-just-skate-along"
attitude by showing up late for meetings with a careless glaze in his eyes. I
thought he was bureaucratic trash, but the people voted him into office.

It was late in the spring semester when his incompetence
threatened to egg our last couple weeks in office. Apparently expenditures were
not tracked properly and we were heading straight into a red sea of debt. Out
of desperation, it was decided to have a hot dog sale. For a couple of dollars,
Boomer Hall residents received two grilled hot dogs and a can of pop. Delivery
was free and tips were encouraged. We raised over $200 and used the beefy sum
to buy three new vacuums and a Nintendo game system. Yes, this is my
presidential triumph. Hardly the work of FDR's New Deal, but I was able
to leave university housing with a celebratory FDR-like cigar.

Realistically, raising money in the road and bridge industry
cannot be addressed with some simple squirts of a mustard bottle. According to
a special report by the American Road & Transportation Builders
Association, the November elections showed a nation still divided when it comes
to dropping some more coin in the construction jar.

There were about 36 measures related to transportation
funding on state and local ballots at the Nov. 5 polls.

Almost two-thirds of the money requests asked voters to
approve higher county, sales or property taxes to generate more funds for
transportation projects. Eleven passed, 11 failed. The most lopsided victory
came in Denton, Texas, where over 73% approved the creation of a regional
transportation authority to oversee mass transit projects. Voters also were
asked to approve a quarter-cent sales tax increase to finance a revenue bond to
pay for light rail connecting Denton to Dallas.

But not everyone was cutting the celebratory cake. Those in
Solano County, Calif., rejected a half-cent sales tax measure to fund
transportation programs and projects by almost a 20-point margin. The plan was
expected to generate between $800 million to $1 billion over 20 years. In
Teller County, Colo., 79.79% smashed a measure which would produce $2.168
million annually for the county road and bridge fund for public road and bridge
operations and maintenance through an increase in county taxes.

There were only two calls to increase the gas tax?in
Santa Rosa, Fla., and in the state of Washington?and both failed
miserably. The public, even if it is a small sampling, was refusing to juice up
the highway/bridge spending machine.

Will this tax evasiveness affect those on Capitol Hill? The
Nov. 5 elections handed the Republicans the power stick, and one of the top
issues surrounding the reauthorization of TEA-21 is a hike in the federal gas
tax, which I believe is desperately needed.

But how many Americans really favor such a move? Several
Congress newcomers claim they won a seat because of a campaign that included
infrastructure improvements. Yet those in Santa Rosa and Washington state have
voiced strong opposition. How will their officials really vote when a gas tax
increase is on the table? Commuters in Chicago and San Francisco already pay
over $1.50 at the pump. How will officials in Illinois and California vote?

Is there any cause for concern here, or will we be able to
count on transportation enthusiasts George Voinovich (R-Ohio), Kit Bond
(R-Mo.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Don Young (R-Alaska), Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) and
Thomas Petri (R-Wis.) to manufacture and sell the necessary legislation?

Job security is never a guarantee, especially if you're
a politician. One vote against the viewpoint of your people could have you
selling hot dogs on the street.

About the author: 
Bill Wilson is editor of Roads & Bridges. He can be reached at [email protected]
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