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Old 04-20-2009, 02:32 PM   #1
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Default Good and Bad Ideas from Massachusetts

There are all manner of schemes being proposed to address the needs of dwindling state and federal coffers, many of which often focus on getting hitting the wallets of the driving public. But rare is the state that has two driving-taxation plans as simultaneously enlightened and enraging as the state of Massachusetts. Both have been promoted by Gov. Deval Patrick.

The first of Patrick's initiatives definitely falls on the troubling side: the Governor is pushing a plan - "controversial" would be an understated description - to install Global Positioning System (GPS) chips in vehicle inspection stickers that would be used to tax the vehicle owner for miles driven.

Notwithstanding the obvious "surveillance state" social implications, Patrick's GPS idea - not new to the ever-energetic minds that contemplate innovative methods of taxation - seems fraught with technical hurdles and potential loopholes.

Other states and the federal government have floated similar monitor-your-movement taxation plots. But the notion is particularly unsavory coming from the home state of the Boston Tea Party and the eventual Shot Heard 'Round the World.

Despite the misguided GPS-taxation plan, Gov. Patrick also has proposed his state push forward with a driving-taxation strategy that in effect is a boiled-down version of what should be central to the new national energy policy for which the nation still waits: Patrick wants a drastic increase in the state's gasoline tax.

Gov. Patrick wants to increase Massachusetts' gasoline tax by 19 cents per gallon, reports the Boston Globe. The plan has of course inspired outrage of comparable proportion to the GPS-tracking taxation plan. But the reality is that taxing the fuel is the most efficient and effective way to both increase driving-related revenues and incentivize energy efficiency.

For the gas-tax proposal, Gov. Patrick already has lined up considerable political artillery and has the backing of credible voices of reason.

The sensible arguments for the tax are analogous to those that make the case for a marked increase in the federal fuels tax. For one, estimates from Massachusetts say the poor condition of under-maintained roads costs the average household in the state about $300, or more than twice what the projected hike in the gasoline tax would cost.

The inability of fuel-tax revenues to keep pace with infrastructure-maintenance costs also hits Massachusetts taxpayers with outsized debt payments on longterm bonds required to pay for even baseline maintenance.

But most of all, Gov. Patrick's gas-tax proposal makes his state's debate a microcosm of the larger debate about U.S. energy policy. Until fuel prices (including the portion attributable to taxes) rise to a level reflective of that energy's genuine value to society, the nation as a whole will continue to swill gasoline and diesel at the rates that have required ever-increasing levels of dependence on imported oil - and with that, the myriad economic and geopolitical problems that come with reliance on foreign energy sources.

So a restrained shout-out should go to Gov. Patrick. His GPS-taxation plan stinks just like all those before it, never mind the technology to enable it continues to improve and get cheaper.

But Massachusetts' gas-tax hike indeed is the right course - and could once again allow the state to show the way to a more prosperous future.

Photo by the State of Massachusetts
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick talks to state residents about transportation reform
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