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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Road Tax Hike: Political Potholes and the High Road of Statesmanship

An interesting bit of bipartisanship took place this past week here in South Dakota. Five Republicans and six Democrats on the Legislature's interim highway committee proposed bringing significant increases in vehicle registration fees and the state gas tax up for debate in the 2010 session. This isn't some token Snowe job of one meaningless vote; after a summer of conversation (on top of a much longer history of the majority party putting off hard decisions under the guise of study and task forces), a genuine bipartisan majority of this committee decided South Dakota's transportation infrastructure is in such bad shape that we need to have a serious conversation about paying our way to pave our ways.

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 bĂȘte 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.
In other grand expression of bipartisanship, all four Republicans and the lead Democrat running for governor in 2010 have come out against the increase. Where the bipartisan majority on the committee is motivated by the pressing need to shovel some asphalt, the group of gubernatorial candidates is motivated by the pressing need to keep shoveling a certain bovine substance.

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:

Ahlers, Dan Aye
Senate Democrat
Cronin, Justin Nay
House Republican
Elliott, Elaine Aye
House Democrat
Fryslie, Art Aye
Senate Republican
Juhnke, Kent Nay
House Republican
Knudson, Dave Nay
Senate Republican
Krebs, Shantel Aye
House Republican
Lange, Gerald Aye
House Democrat
Lucas, Larry Aye
House Democrat
McLaughlin, Ed Aye
House Republican
Merchant, Pam Aye
Senate Democrat
Putnam, J.E. "Jim" Aye
House Republican
Steele, Manny Nay
House Republican
Street, Steve Aye
House Democrat
Vanneman, Kim Nay
House Republican
Vehle, Mike Aye
Senate Republican
Verchio, Mike Nay
House Republican


  1. An old state house reporter I worked with many years ago in another state says contemporary politics is a mental health issue. In the last quarter century, he says, politicians have lost their ability to confront problems and issues, and live in a manic frenzy of destroying their opponents. This makes it impossible to see and address issues that exist outside of the partisan delusions.

    This moment of lucid perception regarding the South Dakota infrastructure too shall pass, I fear, as the blogosphere lapses into what seems to be a perpetual manic episode.

    My colleague keeps in touch with his political sources in that more urban state and has commented to me for some time that resentment that the right-wing pursues about tax money being used to aid the poor is a pattern that tax-producing states are expressing about tax-dependent states like South Dakota.

    If his predictions are accurate, South Dakota (and a few states like it) will have a chance to show its fiscal responsibility. The legislative committee apparently sees it coming, but being lucid is a hazardous business in today's political climate.

  2. The "bipartisanship" was of the faux sort. Most South Dakota republicans are fiscal conservatives when it comes to someone elses federal dollars. But when it comes to wealth transfers TO South Dakota or to state or local spending or no-bid contracts, those same republicans are among the biggest drunken sailor spend thrifts.

    I challenge you to get into the DETAILS of the joint committee's work instead of discussing the results at the 30,000 foot-level. One finds NO evidence from the joint committee's work that they did ANY assessment of SD transportation WANTS verse NEEDS. The most modest assessment (had there been one) would significantly cut the scope of the state's aircraft fleet. Instead all indications are the joint committee rubber-stamped the DOT's road building rage. This is a rage we cannot afford to build or to maintain. Instead the joint committee just wants to pay for it.

    If roads birth economic development then by all means lets expand the interstates to six or eight lanes. Ludicrous? Of course, as is the four-lane building mania to towns losing population and closing schools. We need good roads where folks live and a few reliable roads in to the expanding frontier regions of the state - no more.

    The joint committee's socialization of registration costs for heavy trucks - the very vehicles causing over 95% of road damage, is unacceptable. Those causing virtually no damage pay 1.5 cents per vehicle pound for registration while the 32,000 pound road-breakers pay a mere 1 cent per pound for registration - a 50% subsidy.

    Your strawman efficiency verses effectiveness is flawed rhetoric. If we are more concerned with effectiveness then why not double the number of counties and their highway departments or the number of highways? What is instructive (and useful) is that Wyoming runs efficiently and effectively with 23 counties (and their highway departments). Wyoming is 25% larger than South Dakota yet runs with far lower overhead. Nebraska runs effectively with a unicameral legislature. It's long past time when the SD legislature face economic reality and tell folks they confused their NEEDS with their WANTS - the SD DOT budget is one such place to start.

    John Kelley

  3. Our highways and bridges are the arteries we all need for safe and efficient travel. I'd support a short-term increase, dedicated solely to the purpose intended, not melded into the general fund. Maybe a five-year tax with sunset clause, and somehow the discrepancy in fees needs to be addressed that favors large trucks versus passenger vehicles. Large, heavy trucks break up our roads, not passenger cars. Registration and license fees and fuel or diesel taxes need to reflect the damage caused and costs for repairs in relation to the size and weight of vehicles.

  4. Thanks, all three, for thoughtful comments!

    Permit to pull just one needle from the haystack. Mr. Kelley, the efficiency-effectiveness point is neither strawman nor flawed. I amke no absolute claim about efficiency; I note only that there is probably a curve with a nice optimal point somewhere in the middle. Past a certain point, increased efficiency isn't worht pursuing. Every machine has inefficiency, especially social machines. I would suggest we've already cleared out the easy inefficiencies. If we've missed any, I suggest they won't be enough to fill the budget shortfall.

    However, I am perfectly open to a re-examination of just what projects we are going to tackle. Is it time to scale back our highways? Is Highway 34 expansion dead for good? Indeed, what do we need? Who should pay for what we need? Will the legislature have the courage to assign those costs to those most responsible for them?

  5. Cory, J Edwards Demming, his "off=spring" the Six Sigmas of the world will strongly argue there is always room for increased effectiveness and efficiency. And yes, that includes social systems. While a machine may have an optimal efficiency - that doesn't mean we can't remake and optimize the machine - including social methods.

    John Kelley

  6. Steve Sibson10/19/2009 5:54 AM

    There is already plenty of money in the state coffers to fix roads. The problem is that it is being spent on special interests, such as those who ride bikes. How much money is going for bike trails?

  7. A lot less than is being spent on the special interests in 18-wheelers and sports cars.

  8. Uh oh... Deming! We are all machines! ;-)

    "remake and optimize the machine"—sure, I can think of ways to tear apart the machine and rebuild it to make it run better. But if I do that while the machine is running, and if I keep obsessively doing it, don't I run the risk that I'll actually cut down efficiency with all the changeover and retraining? (Yes, we're being abstract here.)


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