Updated: May 2
The following are excerpts from a letter to constituents on April 7, 2015
We are ending our 13th week of the 63rd Legislature, which is a first for this legislator. In my first two years we were home by now, but this year we have had some heavy goals and the past two weeks have been tangled in a consensus building process. The goal is to find common ground to fund the deficiency in our transportation funding.
Entering this year, I expected education to be the potential stumbling block to going home early. However, it turns out that the differences in how to fund education and improve the compensation schedule for teachers were relatively easy to overcome. Certainly there were times when the Career Ladder, intended to replace the prior salary funding schedule, was running into serious obstacles. Fortunately, consensus building prevailed and the Career Ladder moved through the House and Senate with little opposition. The Governor’s signature added the exclamation point to a great deal of hard work, which began with recommendations from the Governor’s Task Force and culminated with House Bill 296.
Most of the concerns we heard addressed the starting minimum teacher appropriation, which increases from the $31,750 to $37,000 over the next five years. That is true; however, it is not always fully explained. $37,000 is the minimum appropriation for a first year teacher hired in 2019; not the appropriation for that same teacher in their 5th year. A teacher climbs the ladder, so to speak, and each year they find themselves on a rung that is also increasing. A first year teacher appropriation for the 2015-16 school year will be $32,700. The same teacher could then advance up the ladder and have a state appropriation of $44,375 in the 2019-20 school year. As you can see, this is quite an incentive to recruit new teachers.
Today, however, it is transportation and the taxes needed to fund the deficiencies in our highway maintenance that is keeping us in session. When we began the session, the legislature was presented with an estimate of $265 million to address the backlog of maintenance on our Highways and roads. This is for both state and local highway needs. There are several approaches that have been under consideration.
The simplest option would require an increase in the gas/diesel tax and registration fees. This could take as much as 20¢ per gallon of gas/diesel and $20-30 for registration fees. For many legislators, that is too large a bite. To others, any bite is too much. So we must try for a consensus.
Another approach included combining some tax relief on grocery sales tax and income tax, to help soften the cost of the fuel taxes. This offered some comfort for legislators to report back to their districts that the fuel tax was increased, but we also created savings on sales taxes and reduced our income tax rates. Unfortunately, this becomes complicated and each piece of the puzzle has its supporters and opponents. Thus, we have a problem of finding the right combination of taxes and tax relief to gain a consensus and go home.
Personally, I can accept some fuel tax and registration fee increases, as I believe the costs of maintaining our highways should be paid for by the vehicles that use the roads and highways. Ultimately all costs associated with trucking, including fuel taxes, are included in the prices we pay for the goods and services we consume. Some people want to see the trucking industry pay a higher portion of the highway funding. In reality, all these costs indirectly are paid by the consumer. We must ultimately determine if we need a good highway network that can move raw materials, farm products, parts and finished goods to the end user with the most efficient means possible. If not, what is the cost to the economy?
A good transportation system is good for employment, commerce and the consumer. Accordingly, it is good for the revenues of the state’s general fund. There have been many good arguments that it is time that we look at some of the growth of state revenues from income tax and sales tax to fund a portion of our transportation system. As cars become more fuel efficient, lane miles are increasing, while the fuel tax revenues per mile driven are declining. It may be time that we start looking at new sources of funding to properly address the changing nature of transportation.
Yogi Berra was quoted as saying, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” With transportation, we are at the fork in the road and we must make a choice. We can continue to allow our infrastructure to deteriorate, or take action. Yogi Berra was right, there are choices, but going straight is not an option.