On Thursday, for Markell, the rubber will meet the road

January 28, 2014

The clock is always ticking, whether or not we’re paying attention.

For some people the clock can’t be ignored. Speaking at last fall’s town meeting at Cape Henlopen High School, Gov. Jack Markell talked about how the fixed date of his departure from office - in January 2017 - focuses his mind on what remains to be done.

“Every day that goes by,” he said, “is one less day to make this state all that it can be.” Like all politicians of this era, Markell faces a difficult task in establishing a legacy. Tight budgets force politicians to tread water. They struggle just to maintain services.

That’s why Markell’s call for a $500 million increase in the state’s Transportation Trust Fund is so remarkable. A half billion dollars in change is considerably more than can be found in the seat and sofa cushions of Delaware’s state office buildings. The fund was originally designed to pay for DelDOT’s capital projects, but was raided - and depleted - to pay operating expenses.

Some money can be borrowed, but much of it will have to come from tax or fee increases, most likely those related to cars. On Thursday, Markell will announce how he proposes to raise those funds.

I can’t wait. It might not be political theater at its finest, but it should be a good show.

That’s because people go berserk over car-related taxes and fees. Which makes no sense. It’s perfectly logical that people who use the roads more pay more in taxes, through their gasoline purchases.

(One explanation that seems to make sense: With gas, unlike any other purchase, people watch those pennies and dollars whiz by on the pump. Meanwhile, people happily pay $30 a gallon and up for a fancy - and fattening - cup of coffee.)

It’s also logical to raise a gas tax that hasn’t been increased for over 20 years. Imagine the state trying to maintain services with income tax set at a flat rate and not tied to increases in income. We’d go broke in no time.

Then there are the registration fees. Raising them to pay for roads also makes sense, but it’s another tough sell.

I recall one politician saying he would never vote to raise auto registration fees, such was the reaction the last time it was done.

And this is an election year. Markell will struggle to find support from his own party, much less the Republicans, who may see the call for any tax or fee increases as a useful campaign tool.

So why raise the issue now?

Because the clock is ticking. Markell’s nearing his last chance to solve a big problem. Since he can’t run again, he’s already technically a lame duck. That factor will only get worse after the 2014 elections, when people start looking ahead to the next administration.    It’s now or never.

It’s also good policy. If you were short of cash but your home had a leaky roof, would you try to save money by not fixing it?

Of course not. The roof is only going to get worse and cost more money to repair in the future. You’d scrape together what money you could and get it fixed.

Delaware faces a similar problem. We know our roads are inadequate. In the short term, we may appear to save money by not maintaining our transportation system. But in the long term, we’re going to pay more. Worse, our economy will suffer from second-rate infrastructure.

Hopefully, legislators and residents will understand what a difference improvements can make. On Sunday night, I drove back from Wilmington, taking the new 95 flyover at Christiana Mall.

What an improvement!

Before you had to take an exit and loop backward, only to be forced into traffic that was trying to exit as you were merging. There was precious little roadway to do so. I know people who were genuinely frightened to drive around the Route 1/95 interchange.

There’s an old joke that applies here: A preacher tells his congregation he’s got some bad news, some good news and some more bad news.

“The bad news,” he says, “is that the church needs a new roof.” People groan (politely though, because they’re in church).

“The good news,” he continues, “is that there’s enough money to fix it.” People cheer up considerably.

Then he delivers the boom. “The other bad news is that that money is still in your wallet.”

As painful as it may be, we have the money to invest in our future.

The question is, with the clock ticking, will Markell be able to persuade Delawareans it’s in our interest to take it out of our wallet?

We’ll get a first impression on Thursday.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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