Move cautiously, responsibly on increasing Ohio gas tax


M ost motorists who each day valiantly venture onto the crater-filled terrain of many roads in the Mahoning Valley likely would agree that quality repairs are long past due.

But when it comes to how much John Q. Taxpayer should fork over to state government to finance and execute those premium repairs, that unanimity dissipates fast.

And so it goes that some discord has greeted Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s rollout Thursday of a proposed Department of Transportation budget for fiscal years 2020 and 2021 that includes a 64 percent increase in the state’s gasoline tax – from 28 cents per gallon to 46 cents per gallon.

As such, ODOT leaders proposing the first increase in the tax in more than 15 years owe it to Ohioans to justify the hefty increase and other aspects of the proposal that have met with initial skepticism, questions and opposition from several segments of the state.

The ODOT plan unveiled this week therefore should serve as a starting point for debate and possible revision, not a finish line.

DETAILS OF THE PROPOSAL

Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jack Marchbanks unveiled the governor’s proposal to the Ohio House Finance Committee on Thursday. He told panel members that revenue raised in the first year of the higher tax would amount to roughly $1.2 billion and would be split between ODOT and local governments.

The funding would be funneled into construction, reconstruction, maintenance, and repair of highways and bridges.

In fiscal year 2020, Marchbanks said the proposal will provide 750 million additional dollars to pave roads, fix guardrails, fill potholes, clear snow and ice, maintain bridges and improve safety.

The increased revenue would trickle down to local governments as well. According to ODOT estimates, over the first year, the increased gas tax would bump Austintown’s annual gas-tax allotment from $238,665 to $525,443, Boardman’s from $270,320 to $605,218, Warren’s from $1.20 million to $2.07 million and Youngstown’s from $1.88 million to $3.25 million.

It is now incumbent upon ODOT to convincingly justify the need for such a large-scale bump. Marchbanks began that mission Thursday, telling legislators, “Due to flat revenues, highway-construction inflation and mounting debt payments, ODOT is in jeopardy of being unable to fulfill its mission.”

Those promoting the tax also will point out that of all five states that border Ohio, only Pennsylvania has a higher tax at 56 cents per gallon.

But if the full 18-cent hike were to be adopted, Ohio would jettison from 29th highest gas tax in the nation to fifth highest overnight, according to the nonprofit Tax Foundation.

That sudden added pinch, particularly for low-income Ohioans, has triggered some legitimate concerns. For example, state Rep. Adam Miller, D-Columbus, said he is bothered by the regressive nature of the gas tax – meaning it has a bigger impact on low-income Ohioans.

“For my constituents this would really hurt their family budgets,” he said. “I’m a very hard sell on this,” he told the Columbus Dispatch on Thursday. Several Valley leaders have echoed similar fears about the proposal, especially with the looming job losses from the soon-to-be-idled General Motors Lordstown plant .

Some county leaders also are scratching their heads over the allocation formula to counties proposed for the new funding.

Mahoning County commissioners question why it’s fair to give every county the same share when the number of road miles varies widely. Mahoning and Trumbull counties are each responsible for about 450 miles of county roads, while smaller counties have 150 miles but would receive the same amount of funding.

State leaders have an obligation to densely populated urban counties to explain why they would be shortchanged.

Still other critics legitimately question the automatic increases built in to the proposal. In its current format, the gasoline tax would increase each year by the rate of inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index with no review by legislators.

These and other concerns deserve a robust airing. Those pushing the plan should consider public hearings on the tax hike throughout the state.

Given there are about four months before the new biennial budget must be passed, there’s adequate time to proceed cautiously and responsibly with a full and robust discussion and possible tweaking to ensure maximum fairness for all parties affected by the tax while doing the best job possible to repair our state’s bruised transportation network.

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