Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Who Is Abdicating?

Texas governor Rick Perry argues vigorously in favor of building private toll roads in the state, claiming that any refusal by the legislature to go along with his proposal amounts to an "abdication of responsibility." The governor contends that this is the only way for the state to grow its infrastructure and keep up with its burgeoning population growth.

The collection of tolls from drivers is essentially a users' fee, and, as such, is a defensible policy solution. However, they are also a form of hidden tax -- less visible than, say, an increase in the gasoline tax -- and their expanded use can also result from a lack of political courage. To his credit, the governor has criticized the legislature for using gasoline tax funds for projects that have nothing to do with road building and maintenance.

The development and maintenance of an adequate system of roads and highways is a legitimate function of state government. In fact, it is essential to the continued economic growth of the state. Faced with a scarcity of funds for necessary functions, a state typically needs to take one of two routes: 1) determine priorities and defund less important projects so that the most important needs can be met; or 2) if the nature of the priorities require it, raise additional revenue through higher taxes.

Most of the time, the solution should be found in the first of those choices. Some conservatives will always argue against the second of those solutions, and, while that knee-jerk reaction may be wrong, it is understandable why they should do so. Conservatives have rightly noted and decried the ever expanding scope of government and have rebelled against those who would forever eschew hard choices in favor of simply accessing additional revenue streams at taxpayer expense. Politicians sometimes complain that it is difficult to make an argument for a tax increase, but it ought to be a difficult argument to make. Those who would ask for more have an obligation to justify it.

Of course, nowadays most politicians don't want to make hard choices either on restraining spending or raising taxes. Rather than face those choices, they search for less visible ways of expanding revenues -- through gambling schemes or toll roads, as two examples. Frequently, these are not real solutions: they merely delay inevitable choices that will have to be made when the desire to spend once again outpaces revenues.

That being said, when politicians refuse to make a case simply because it is a difficult and unpopular one, they abdicate the responsibility of leadership. Is that is what is happening with Texas toll roads? I don't know. The Senate Transportation Committee is holding hearings today. Perhaps we will know more tomorrow.



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