CHRIS POWELL: Imposing hardship is point of another hidden gas tax

Published on Monday, 25 October 2021 20:47

Writing last week in Connecticut's Hearst newspapers, state Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, argued that raising gasoline prices by what she estimates as 5 cents per gallon under the Transportation Climate Initiative advocated by Governor Lamont would be no big deal, because people just shrug off rising gas prices.

Yes, gas price increases tend to be accepted, but that is because gas is a necessity of life. That’s why rising prices for food, housing, and medical care – other necessities – tend to be accepted as well. Contrary to Palm’s cavalier suggestion, this acceptance does not imply approval and a lack of hardship. After all, inflation is already exploding and gas prices are only part of it. There is much hardship and government shouldn’t worsen it.

But imposing hardship is the very objective of the Transportation Climate Initiative – to coerce people into driving less and using less gas and thus to generate less pollution on pain of having less to spend on food, housing, medical care, and everything else. Since Palm acknowledges that rising gas prices probably don’t cause people to drive less, she must also acknowledge that instead of cutting pollution, the TCI will just reduce living standards.

Essentially the TCI would be another hidden tax on gas imposed at the wholesale level, like Connecticut’s gross receipts tax. It would make the tax increase look like it a price increase imposed by gasoline businesses, not government policy.

Contributing to this deception, Palm’s essay injected some demagoguery. Why, she asked, are some people upset about a possible 5-cent increase in gas taxes that might result "if petroleum distributors were actually held accountable for their enormous, devastating carbon footprint?"

Oh, yes – it’s those big, bad petroleum distributors, not Palm’s own constituents who drive the cars that burn the fuel that causes the pollution, as if the distributors would keep pushing out fuel even if no one bought it, and as if the problem is the supply, not the demand.

Palm estimates that the TCI would cost a typical Connecticut resident $15.60 per year, which, she writes, is a fraction of the extra money people already have been paying on account of the recent increase in gas prices. But Palm offers only the old rationale for all tax and price increases – that it is just a little more – as if “incrementalism” doesn’t add up.

Connecticut didn’t get to be highly taxed all at once. The state achieved that dubious distinction by heeding the calls of legislators like Palm to pay a little more here and a little more there, over and over again.

Besides, Palm and other TCI advocates don’t really believe their own claims of a climate emergency. If they did, they would search more broadly for the revenue needed to address it, not settle on raising the cost of a necessity of life.

State government is full of inefficiency and exploitation, especially in its government labor policies, but these are overlooked because their beneficiaries are special interests more influential than ordinary taxpayers and, in the eyes of the TCI’s own advocates, more important than any climate emergency itself. For example, sustaining Columbus Day as a paid holiday for government employees continues to take precedence over any climate emergency and the provision of the many goodies and benefits Palm imagines being financed by the TCI:

“Clean electric buses. A dramatic reduction in asthma rates. ... Shuttles for the elderly. ... Light rail systems. ... Conveniently located charging stations. And, of course, jobs.”

But those imagined benefits require big presumptions: that state government won't keep diverting transportation money to general purposes, and that as many jobs might not be created or sustained just by letting people keep and spend their own money.

While pollution needs to be curtailed, local and regional undertakings like the TCI aren’t likely to accomplish much, since any reduction in pollution in Connecticut could be offset by increases in pollution in other states even as Connecticut kept disadvantaging itself with higher taxes. It’s a national and international problem requiring rules with much wider application.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Column on Monday, 25 October 2021 20:47. Updated: Monday, 25 October 2021 20:50.