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Monday, May 21, 2018
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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Gas-tax increase should fuel Pasco revolution

So, Tuesday: Another county commission workshop, another surge in momentum for increasing the tax burden on the local populace.

In the latest round of Pasco Bureaucrats With Linty Pockets, staffers guided commissioners down their ongoing Nightmare on Shortfall Street, where shocks-and-struts-killing potholes go untended for weeks, landscaping grows wild, and safety-related repairs are put off. Give them an extra $7.75 million a year – the amount projected from a nickel-a-gallon hike – and they’d unleash fresh armies to fix what ails Pasco’s roads.

Part – possibly much – of the reason the county is in its current fix is because it funds its Road and Bridge Department exclusively with local gasoline taxes. A more prudent county might long ago have begun funneling property taxes that way, alertly anticipating the day the lines that track rising fuel economy standards and soaring maintenance costs would cross – not in a happy way.

Would property owners really have noticed, back in the go-go Aughts when climbing values seemed endless, if their rates had shrunk just a teeny, tiny tenth of a mill less? After all, when asked in the county’s most recent annual survey to pick their road upkeep poison, respondents by a fair margin preferred boosting property taxes to higher gas taxes.

Why not, after all? Homeowners with mortgages usually escrow their taxes; it’s almost like they never see the out-of-pocket dollars anyway. And, come April 15, higher property taxes equal lower income taxes for itemizers. Nobody gets a break from Uncle Sam on gas taxes.

Pasco’s Republican Party already has sunk its heels into summer-hot tar, declaring any gas tax boost an effrontery to the (R) behind each county commissioner’s name. After about 120 members of the executive committee unanimously rejected the hike while endorsing an advertising campaign to defeat it, State Committeeman Bill Bunting darkly vowed commissioners were in for a stern reminder about GOP principles, a maneuver that seems focused on rookie commissioner Kathryn Starkey, who seems ready to vote in favor of being primaried in 2016.

Still, low-tax principles, admirable as they are, comprise only a sliver of the push-back. The energy propelling the resistance also has plenty to do with having been cajoled, suckered, bribed or bullied into trading in our beloved, paid-for family clunkers on the promise that, having surrendered interior space and taken on monthly payments, our new rides eventually will pay for themselves in lower fuel costs.

Well. An extra nickel, or maybe just an extra three cents, if that’s what it takes to get a waffling Jack Mariano – AKA Pivotal Vote No. 4 – aboard the good ship The Joke’s On You, pushes “eventually” even deeper into the future.

But it’s also about a failure of vision. Staffers want, and commissioners seem inclined to grant, more of your money to do the same old stuff. And it never, ever ends. You want to excite us, maybe even get us on board? Add a cutting-edge wrinkle. Put a natural gas component in the mix.

In May, the Legislature passed a bipartisan package of incentives to encourage the availability and use of natural gas in transportation, reflecting the public’s keen interest in and support for the boom in domestic production. Even Bunting has been in front of Pasco’s commissioners, pushing them to embrace natural gas for the county’s fleet, at present, the most sensible use of compressed natural gas, say industry experts.

The stuff is abundant, it’s comparatively cheap, it’s American-made and it leaves a tiny carbon footprint (which, apparently, is important to some folks). Commissioners could buy lots of goodwill by declaring the first two cents of a nickel-a-gallon hike would go toward putting the county on a nat-gas conversion path, which would have the salutary bonus of lowering Pasco’s overall fuel bill.

The idea that such a gambit would put Bunting in a bind is just topping off the tank.

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