Consider the diverse voices backing this proposal:
- Republican committee chair Rep. Shantel Krebs (10-Renner) is vice chair of the state GOP. She's at the heart of the party that depends on South Dakota's "no-tax/low-tax" mantra to win keep power. Yet she is willing to be called a fool by members of her own party and support raising the road fees.
- Democratic Representative Gerald Lange (8-Madison) is a classic Catholic social activist, perhaps the noirest bête of South Dakota politics. He has consistently opposed regressive taxes like our tax on food as harmful to the poor and bad fiscal policy. Yet he is willing to compromise and support somewhat regressive road use taxes to prevent the collapse of our infrastructure.
Let me take issue most directly with the position taken by candidate who will probably get my vote next November, Senate Minority Leader Scott Heidepriem (13-Sioux Falls):
Democratic candidate for governor Scott Heidepriem says state government needs to improve efficiency, not raise taxes, to pay for future road and bridge projects.
Heidepriem says $183 million in federal stimulus money should be enough for the state to meet its highway needs for now.
"I don't believe that an increase in taxation on the backs of people of South Dakota at this difficult time in history is appropriate given we already have received this amount from the federal government," Heidepriem said [Perry Groten, "Governor Candidates React to Proposed Tax Hike," KELOLand.com, 2009.10.15].
The point about the federal money available is well taken. Some commentators continue to use "rely[ing] on the federal government" as an empty talking point, but Heidepriem's position could be the most realistic one expressed: South Dakota is all about federal pork. South Dakota voters, especially the Republicans, love keeping our taxes low and relying on Uncle Sam to build our roads.
But the highway committee already factored those stimulus dollars into their deliberations. $85 million has already been awarded in 14 contracts. $5.5 million has to go toward enhancement projects (like the Lake Herman Loop bike path?!? Hey! Over here!). The remaining $92.5M needs to be dealt out by next March. The stimulus thus doesn't cover whatever road projects are on tap for 2011... which is what road fee hikes passed in the 2010 Legislature would kick in to cover.
Heidepriem also runs the efficiency argument. Sure, we can find some extra executive indulgences like state planes and no-bid contracts. But just a thought: does South Dakota want total efficiency? Total efficiency would mean consolidating all drivers license stations to Sioux Falls, Aberdeen, and Rapid City. Total efficiency would mean no school districts with enrollment under 1000 (2000? 5000?). Total efficiency would mean shutting down courthouses and consolidating all services into seven mega-counties along the circuit court boundaries.
My principal and former boss Dennis Germann once told me there's a difference between doing things efficiently and doing things effectively. (I think he was talking about the fact that I never sat down for coffee with other teachers.) I would suggest there comes a point where the pursuit of efficiency becomes the quest for a perpetual motion machine.
Now I understand there are political arguments behind all this. Facing an uphill battle in a state that hasn't elected a Democratic governor since the 1970s, Heidepriem can't afford to give the eventual GOP nominee any easy attack line on taxes. And Heidepriem could be concerned that Rep. Krebs and the other Republicans who are willing to stick their necks out for responsible fiscal policy now, after a summer of pleasant conversations out of the media spotlight, will cut and run during the session and the 2010 campaign, hoping the voters will forget this bipartisan vote (forget this vote? not with this blog around). Draw Dems out into a compromise on a vital issue, then bail on them to score political points: the national GOP has played that strategy on health care; what's to stop the state GOP from playing the same games with our roads?
Maybe the words of Rep. Mike Vehle (20-Mitchell), who opened discussion at Wednesday's committee meeting thus:
Everyone in this committee.. has a feeling that we need to do something... We'd all like to do probably a lot more than we feel in a recession we can do. But we need to take a hard look and be ready to explain to our colleagues the need that our highways have.... [A]ny society that lets its infrastructure fail or start to fail is also going down a wrong road and putting our society in jeopardy [Senator Mike Vehle, 2009.10.14].
The proposed vehicle registration fee and gas tax hikes don't have to be about politics. The proposals can be and should be about solving a problem and protecting a vital state resource. Let us hope the statesmanlike bipartisanship demonstrated this week by Krebs, Lange, Vehle, Merchant, and seven others will prevail over political potholes.
Bookmark this page for 2010 (or bookmark Pat's—we'll both keep track): here's a recap of who voted how on this particular measure on Wednesday:
|Putnam, J.E. "Jim"||Aye||House||Republican|