Robert Rosenkranz: Intelligence Squared US Debate Analysis
Raise the Federal Gas Tax to Fund Infrastructure
As most Americans may know, a portion of their gasoline bills is a federal gas tax. This tax is 18 [CK] cents a gallon and is used largely for the building and maintaining of roads, highways and bridges around the country.
As noted at the outset of the debate, economists consider the federal gas tax to be as close to a “perfect tax” as can likely exist. This is because it is “reasonably close to a user tax. It’s a fee for using the service…and that is almost the least distorting tax you could have…where the people who are using it are paying for it.” Conservatives might like it for that reason; environmentalists might favor it because it discourages use of fossil fuels.
Despite its near-Utopian economic nature, the federal gas tax remains unpopular, and has not been raised in more than 20 years. This reality is the background for our latest Intelligence Squared debate in which two teams put forth arguments for and against the concept of raising the gas tax to fund transportation infrastructure projects.
Arguing in favor of the motion was Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Shailen Bhatt and Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the American Road and Transportation Builder’s Association, Alison Black.
The team arguing against the motion included the Vice President of Policy at the Reason Foundation and former Member on the Congressional National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission Adrian Moore. His partner was Fox News Contributor and visiting fellow of the Heritage Foundation’s Project for Economic Growth, Stephen Moore.
The debate began with the team in favor of the motion pointing out the need for additional revenues for infrastructure maintenance in order to offset the effects of inflation over the past 23 years on routine costs, as well as the major expenses needed to address the physical deterioration of our roads and bridges over time.
The opposing team agreed that funding roads, highways and bridges is important yet put forth the idea that doing so can be achieved without a federal gas tax increase. They argued that the benefits of these projects are primarily local, and that local authorities can make better decisions than the federal government. They also cited the inefficiencies inherent in federal government spending and suggested that local decision making and funding will reduce waste. Finally they noted that a quarter of the gas tax funds mass transit systems, not the infrastructure used by motorists.
At every Intelligence Squared debate, winners are chosen by the pre- and post-debate votes of our live audience. This particular debate saw a unique set of results in which both sides achieved very similar increases in the percent of votes supporting their views. In the end, however, the team arguing in favor of the motion edged out those opposed by a 2% margin.
Votes in favor of the motion rose by 15% from 51% to 66% before and after the debate. Votes against the motion rose by 13% from 10% to 23% before and after the debate. The number of undecided voters dropped dramatically from 38% before the event to only 10% after.
What’s Your Vote?
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