June 13, 2008

Connecticut Gas Taxes: Playing Politics with a Serious Crisis

The Connecticut House and Senate each approved a bill early Thursday morning that adds to the state’s existing $150 million deficit by cancelling a scheduled increase in the state’s tax on wholesale earnings from gasoline sales. Governor Rell is expected to sign the measure. The bill prevents what would have been a 0.5% increase in the petroleum wholesale earnings tax, which industry lobbyists are claiming would have increased prices at the pump by about 5 cents.

The estimated cost of this bill has been pegged at $25 million. It may at first seem odd that Connecticut lawmakers have decided to make cutting taxes a top priority when the state is facing a budget deficit and numerous counties have been forced to scale back vital public services whose benefits almost certainly outweigh their costs. Even in the face of these serious budgetary issues, one of the first reactions from Democratic House Speaker James A. Amann was that “We didn’t raise taxes, so we’re pretty proud of what we’ve done.”

What’s going on here? Why is restricting revenues such a priority when it couldn’t be more obvious that state and local governments need more funds to provide the services Connecticut families have come to expect?

The answer: It’s an election year! Republican legislators, outnumbered 44 to 107 in the House and 13 to 23 in the Senate, have opted for a strategy of supporting viscerally appealing, though often fiscally irresponsible plans designed to gain some positive publicity and win votes in November. The majority of those plans have been ignored by the Democrats in power (for the most part with good reason), though with gas prices as high as they are, the Democrats decided not to take the political risk associated with appearing uninterested in the effects of high fuel costs on Connecticut families.

This isn’t at all surprising. Many state lawmakers across the nation have latched on to the headlines being generated by high fuel prices by proposing gas tax reductions much better suited for winning votes than for actually helping anybody in need. This plan in Connecticut is no different.

Even if we put aside our skepticism of the petroleum industry’s figures and accept their estimate that this bill will prevent a 5 cent increase in the price of gas, few observers could seriously suggest that avoiding this increase will do anything to improve the financial situation of Connecticut families. During the brief debate that occurred earlier this year over a proposed suspension of the 18.4 cent federal gas tax, that plan was heavily criticized for only providing the average driver with a $30 tax cut. The Connecticut bill would save drivers less than a third of that amount, though it would play a noticeable role in driving the state government millions deeper into debt.

Well aware that this bill would only provide a negligible tax cut for the average family, one legislator insisted, in typical election-year fashion, that it is important to “let our citizens know that we are very concerned about what they’re up against”.

That’s what makes this whole debate so discouraging. The problem is not just that Connecticut lawmakers are shamelessly hunting for votes – it’s that in the face of a serious crisis for lower-income families, lawmakers have decided that “letting our citizens know we’re concerned” is more important than actually doing something meaningful to help them.

Even if Connecticut legislators wished to avoid a needed restructuring of their state’s regressive tax system, this does not change the fact that much better options exist for providing real assistance to families hurt by high fuel costs. Instead of offering across-the-board tax relief that benefits both Connecticut’s wealthiest, as well as its poorest families, a targeted low-income gas tax credit of the type enacted in Minnesota could have distributed more gas tax relief to lower-income families at a similar cost. Alternatively, Connecticut could have given consideration to enacting a modest Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or a meaningful low-income, refundable property tax circuit-breaker. Admittedly, an EITC or circuit-breaker would cost more than a gas tax cut or gas tax credit, but if legislators are genuinely “concerned”, wouldn’t it be worth it to find the money somehow? Until legislators readjust their priorities from winning votes to improving the lives of those struggling to make ends meet, Americans shouldn’t expect any relief beyond the kind of poorly targeted and gimmicky tax cut passed in Connecticut.


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