EVERYBODY loves a sin tax but the sinner.
For plutocrats, it's a chance to regressively soak the hoi polloi. Deficit hawks get revenue gain with no political pain. Social engineers can discourage misbehavior and finance its consequences at the same time.
The religious say amen. And even for agnostics, vice taxes yield the certainty that transgressors will be penalized in this world, if not the next.
But in a democracy, the taxes of sin need a righteous majority and an errant few. When the sin is wildly popular, fiscal authorities defer to higher judges.
Which helps explain the gas tax rollback.
In America, we tax our liquor, cigarettes and stogies to the max. But we like our TV free, our guns plentiful and our oil cheap.
If you don't think America's gas habit is a vice, talk for a few minutes to Jeff Soule, policy director for the American Planning Association. Soule is not an owl-nuzzling Greenpeacer. He drives a 1989 Mercury Tracer.
But he and others argue persuasively that many of the country's problems are caused or worsened by cheap gas: urban decay, suburban sprawl, air pollution, global warming, dying Main Street shops, loss of community.
In the ledger that macroeconomists tally in their heads, gas at only $1.50 per gallon is a screaming bargain.
Gas' real cost is much higher, they argue. Its real cost includes traffic deaths that would be prevented if people used mass transit. Its real cost includes hospital care for people made ill by air pollution. Its real cost includes new suburban offices, roads and fire stations that needlessly duplicate what we already have in the cities.
"We're taking people out of a place where you've got water, you've got sewers, you've got libraries, you've got schools, and we're sprinkling people out in a very low density, and we're re-creating these institutions and charging taxpayers for them through bond issues," Soule said. "It's OK if people want to live like that, but they should pay for it and not impose it on people who are not making that choice."
Do you live in Baltimore? Take the light rail to work? Walk to the grocer?
Too bad. Your state and federal taxes are helping Howard County residents like me get our minivans to I-95 a little more quickly. When finished, the new Route 100 linking Ellicott City and Pasadena will have cost almost a quarter of a billion dollars -- twice the expense of the entire first phase of Baltimore's light rail.
Meanwhile, Howard County's existing arteries "have suffered a whole lot from congestion," complained James M. Irvin, director of the county's Public Works Department. "They weren't designed to handle such volume."
It's nothing that a $2-a-gallon gas tax wouldn't tame. That's what other nations do.
In Sweden, France, Germany and Japan, taxes push gas prices past $4 a gallon. In Britain it's a mere $3.20. By making driving expensive, those nations have maintained their city centers, preserved their farms, conserved economic resources, cut traffic, cut pollution and helped the public treasury.
Want new roads? Want to pollute? Want to hold the country hostage to foreign oil? Great, say the Germans. Pay the piper at the pump.
America now imports twice as much oil as it did a decade ago. This country is just as hooked on foreign crude as it was in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, Congress wants to cut gas taxes by 4.3 cents a gallon.
"It's just another example where we can say to the American working people, 'We want to try to reduce your tax burden wherever we can,' " said Bill Archer, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Archer also wants to replace the federal income tax with a "consumption" tax or national sales tax to encourage savings and discourage wasteful spending. Evidently the consumption of products from his home state of Texas isn't included.
The Surface Transportation Project, a coalition opposed to the gas-tax rollback, says America ought to be collecting $300 billion annually in gas taxes, road tolls and other user fees to pay for the pollution, health costs, redundant infrastructure and other expenses of our motor habit. The take is only $85 billion now.
Pub Date: 5/13/96