Politician hears about proposed gas tax hike while filling up

February 5, 2014

Imagine Gov. Jack Markell making this announcement:

“Today, I am calling for an annual decrease in our gasoline tax. With this decrease, for which I am asking for bipartisan support, Delaware will be able to renew its commitment to crumbling infrastructure, to making our state less competitive economically, and, most important, to making our roadways less safe for all Delawareans.”

An announcement like that, I’m confident, would be received as a real head-scratcher.

Effectively, though, that is our state’s current policy. Delaware’s gas tax, which helps pay for road projects, hasn’t been raised since 1995.

Each year inflation eats into the value of those dollars; each year delayed projects become more expensive to fix. And each year Sussex County roads that served well enough when I was in high school - shortly after the Civil War - become less able to handle to handle the increasing traffic.

Last week Markell put forward a solution. He called for raising the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon. He made it clear he didn’t consider the proposal a partisan issue: It was something that both Democrats and Republicans could agree on.

On that last point, Markell has achieved some early success. It appears there is broad bipartisan agreement concerning the measure. Unfortunately for Markell, what Democrats and Republicans agree on is that it’s a bad idea.

State Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, in a telephone interview Friday, said that he was sitting next to a longtime Democratic senator during Markell’s budget presentation. When the governor announced the 10-cent increase, Lopez said, the senator “leaned over and said, ‘He’s never going to get that.’”

Fellow politicians aren’t the only ones talking about the issue. “I was getting gas at the Wawa this morning,” Lopez said, “and I had someone walk over to me and say, ‘You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are: Please do not raise the gas tax.’”

In the first 48 hours since Markell’s proposal, Lopez said, he has not heard from a single constituent who favors the increase.

Rep. Steve Smyk, R-Milton, reached Thursday night after he finished up House business, said he received a similar response. “The district is just up in arms,” Smyk said. He hasn’t even counted the number of emails and phone calls he’s received against the idea.

“I don’t always vote party line,” Smyk said, “I vote my district, and they’re not liking this.”

Nevertheless, Lopez said he respects the fact the governor has offered a plan.

“As someone who believes in finding common ground,” Lopez said, he’s looking forward to working with the governor and his own caucus in dealing with the state’s fiscal problems, which include a $130 million budget gap.

A press release from the House Republican Caucus said that both the governor and House Republicans agree that “funding for state transportation projects is inadequate. It is their proposed solutions that are divergent.”

In the release, House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford recommended moving DelDOT’s operating expenses back into the general fund, which is where they used to be. During the early '90s, legislators used the Transportation Trust Fund - the money raised by gas taxes to pay for road projects - to cover DelDOT’s operating expenses.

Short said the state, over seven years, should move those expenses back into the general fund, in annual increments of roughly $37 million.

This is a perfectly logical idea. DelDOT’s operating expenses should be paid out of the general fund.

Here’s the problem: As of yet, Short’s not offering a real plan. There’s no mention of where the annual $37 million would come from. Short does concede the change would create a challenge for budget writers.

Markell, on the other hand, has said exactly how he plans to raise the money. People may not like hearing about higher gas taxes, but at least the governor’s being forthright.

And, in some ways at least, the timing is good. Gas prices are a little lower than they were and are expected to fall this year. A small increase could be fairly painless.

It’s virtually impossible that Markell will get the full 10-cent increase he asked for. If emotions rule the day, he won’t get any.

But some increase - really a restoration of the steadily decreasing value of the 1995 gas tax - still makes sense as part of an overall budget plan. No politician, Democrat or Republican, is going to solve Delaware’s budget woes by smoke and mirrors or budgetary tricks - or by raiding a trust fund. That’s already been done.

Don Flood is a former newspaper editor living near Lewes. He can be reached at

  • 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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