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Carona: Tax First?

Just how out of touch must one be to advocate a 50-percent hike in gasoline taxes in the midst of the worst recession in 60 years? And just how ridiculous is it to suggest that a tax hike is “the only near-term answer” to solving a government problem? One might ask State Sen. John Carona of Dallas, who is making those cases.

Carona (R-Dallas) posted a message on Texas Monthly “Burkablog” last week claiming that the only option available to dealing with transportation woes is the tax hike. He erroneously suggests that the only option is “a massive network of privately-operated toll roads which will cost the average driver exponentially more than simply raising the gas tax.”

Let’s be clear: there may be a legitimate need in the future to raise — or completely change — the gasoline tax. But Sen. Carona’s desire to tax-first, ask-questions someday, is inexplicably wrong-headed.

We need to start with spending transparency and the ending of all gas-tax diversions. Let’s see where equal helpings of sunlight and accountability get us before we even consider impeding the economy with higher taxes.

Sen. Carona claims that ending diversions won’t bring in all that is needed. He may or may not be correct, but we won’t know until there is greater spending transparency. We also won’t know until he actually does it. So far, Carona has only pushed for higher taxes, not results-based funding, transparency or accountability.

Even on the best of days, transportation funding and financing is complex. Yet we know the Texas Department of Transportation has had numerous problems in keeping its books straight. The transportation agencies operating in Carona’s own backyard — the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) and the North Texas Toll Authority (NTTA) — have had numerous fiscal meltdowns, including DART somehow misplacing a billion dollars.

Now Carona and his allies want to increase the taxes funding for those same irresponsible bureacracies, though without so much as a trace of real reform.

No one disputes that congestion is bad, descriptively and economically. Sen. Carona’s desire to merely throw more unaccountable money at the problem won’t get anyone to work any faster.

In the most recent Session, Sen. Carona wouldn’t entertain ideas reforming the system (video), such as compelling greater transparency and accountability. He dismissed them out-of-hand because that’s apparently what the spenders wanted. The spenders never want transparency, for very obvious reasons.

Local governments in the Dallas area are crying out, begging, for more access to their taxpayers’ wallets. They just want someone else to do their dirty work. As has been pointed out before, those same cities aren’t using their existing dollars to fund transportation.

For example, the City of Arlington chose to use existing taxing capacity to build a football stadium for the Dallas Cowboys rather than fund road construction. Apparently luxury boxes were more important to Arlington than uncongested roads; or rather, not as important with their own dollars.

Despite being a “conservative,” Sen. Carona dismisses out of hand the use of tolls. Tolls, despite not necessarily having been done right recently, are a market-based way to build infrastructure: Let those who use a thing, pay for the thing. Recent sordid problems notwithstanding, tolling can work incredibly well if done right.

The fact remains there are a great many tools available for review and implementation in relieving traffic congestion through road construction that must be exhausted before we turn to higher taxes.

Indeed, before paving new avenues into the wallets of Texas’ taxpayers, Sen. Carona should lead the way in reforming from the ground up those entities and institutions that have misused, misallocated, misplaced or misspent existing taxpayer monies.

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Michael Quinn Sullivan

Michael is the CEO of Empower Texans. A graduate of Texas A&M, former newspaper reporter, one-time Capitol Hill staffer, think tank vice president, and an Eagle Scout, Sullivan is married with three children. He divides his time between the Metroplex, the rest of Texas, and Austin.

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