In a recent blog post, we pointed out that while most core services have seen significant cuts in recent years, transportation has been spared. At a time when many state agencies were absorbing funding cuts of more than 20 percent, spending on roads and bridges has more than tripled.
In response to our blog post, The Oklahoman published an op-ed to defend the additional spending on transportation. They wrote:
Yes, the amount of additional state funding directed to the repair and upkeep of roads and bridges in recent years has been significant. But it has needed to be significant because during the 20 years before things began to change, the Legislature wrote the same size check to ODOT every year — translating to a 45 percent reduction after inflation.
In a fitting coincidence, the 45 percent decline in transportation spending is the exact percentage that the value of the gas tax has dropped since it was last increased in 1987. Oklahoma taxes gasoline at a constant 17 cents/gallon and diesel at 15 cents/gallon. Therefore the real value of the gas tax declines with inflation.
Both The Oklahoman and our earlier post pointed out that an increase in the gas tax was rejected in 2005 by a large majority of voters. At the time, Oklahomans were clearly not willing to pay more taxes for road maintenance and construction. Yet since 2005, we’ve dramatically increased transportation spending anyway and committed ourselves to increased of several hundred million dollars more in the years ahead. Are those same voters today willing to give less to education and other core services in order to spend more on roads? We don’t know, because no one has asked.
When Gov. Fallin announced her plan to boost transportation spending last year, she emphasized that it would be done without any increases in taxes or tolls. Her spokesperson said that the plan “does not reflect a lack of commitment to other areas of government.” Yet by definition, spending more on roads without bringing in new revenue means there will be less for all other public services. Much like with the tax cut debate, there is no free lunch.
The problem could be avoided if Oklahoma adopts pay-as-you-go budgeting, which requires lawmakers to identify ahead of time how they will pay for any new spending or tax cuts. In the end, perhaps Oklahomans would agree with the decision to shift resources to transportation. Either way, we deserve a more honest discussion of the trade-offs involved.