Thursday, October 16, 2008

$ for Idaho Roads

(Hat tip to the Boise Guardian, for posting a condensed version of this for his large and smart audience. Thanks, Dave!)

Idaho's roads are in some serious need of serious road work.

The Idaho Transportation Department estimates that it would cost an additional $250 million per year, just to maintain the status quo. Of course, to bring things into "ship shape" would cost in the billions... we're almost talking CONGRESSIONAL dollar figures! (Boy howdy! Can those kids spend taxpayer dollars?!!)

Many of us are skeptical. We tend to have a myopic viewpoint. (For you non-library types, that's "nearsighted.") "Aw, c'mon! The roads aren't so bad! I drive on the Connecter and 13th Street every day, and there's hardly even a pothole!" To us, the roads look fine... until a bridge falls into the river, like happened back there in Minnesota.

Enter Governor C. L. "Butch" Otter.

(Remember Congressman Butch Otter? The fearless, libertarian-leaning advocate of the downtrodden taxpayer? Heir apparent to Steve "take a bite out of government" Symms? Amazingly, it's the very same guy. Only nowadays, he's busy at work trying to find more money for his beloved state government.)

Governor Otter wants $250 million more, per year, for roads. And when he looks at the hardworking, roadway-using citizens, he sees dollar signs and hears "ka-ching! ka-ching!"

Simply put, he's trying to figure out some way to get more dollars out of those taxpayers' bank accounts, and into the ITD bank account.

(Meanwhile, most of us are powerlessly watching those bank accounts dry up, as the fruits of our lives' work go swirling into the Wall Street sewer grate. But that's a whole 'nother subject.)

The first idea Governor Otter floated (during the '08 Legislative session) was of drastically increasing vehicle registration fees. The reception was lukewarm... about the temperature of liquid nitrogen, as I recall.

Now he's talking about a "mileage tax." It would be simple. Read the odometer each time the car is registered, and collect dollars based on miles-driven since last time.

He's obviously thinking anything is better than raising the fuel tax!

Let's take a look at the options.

Now you're sayin', "What do you know? You're a bikeboy!"

Granted, most of my local transportation is atop my trusty 2-wheeler. But consider... perhaps that gives me a more objective viepoint than Citizen Motorist, or even Butch! (Obviously, I expect somebody to poke holes in my observations. I'm just throwin' 'em out for people to chew on.)


A substantially-increased, revenue-enhancing registration fee sounds fair, doesn't it? (A variation would be a fee based on the weight of the vehicle - after all, a 6000-pound Hummer is gonna bust up the roads way more than that 1900-pound Geo Metro. My Senator - Werk - likes that idea.)

But wait! Not so fast!

If that 1900-pound Geo Metro is driven 20,000 miles a year on Idaho roads, and the Hummer is driven 200 ... who's bustin' up the roads now?

Here's a more commonplace scenario.

Beavis has a 1992 Ford F-150. He drives it back and forth between his house in Kuna and his job in east Boise - puts 20,000 miles on it in a year.

Next door lives - you guessed it - Butthead. He has a pickup just like his neighbor's, only with some sweet rims he got at Les Schwab. And, he puts 2000 miles a year on it, doing a couple dump-runs and a few fishing and hunting trips. (He's got a more "sensible" vehicle that he drives to work in... and pays registration on.)

Just to make the math easy, let's say Butch charges 'em $200/year to register that truck.

Turns out Beavis would be paying one cent per mile, and Butthead ten cents, for the privilege of being registered. (Butthead isn't gonna like this!)

Also, it should be noted that the "foreigners" who visit Idaho from California and other places, are not sharing in the registration-fee revenue scenario.


This seems a little more fair for Beavis and Butthead, huh? If Butch collects five cents per mile, Beavis pays $1000 (ouch!) and Butthead pays $100. (Beavis isn't gonna like this!)

On the surface, it seems more fair than the flat-registration fee. At least it's kinda sorta based on the amount of wear-and-tear the taxpayer is inflicting on the roads.

But... how about the guy who lives in Post Falls but does 90% of his driving in Washington? Should he pay the five cents, too?

Can of worms!

A variation that's being tested next door in Oregon is a GPS-based scheme. A GPS receiver installed in the car keeps track of miles driven.

[If you're asking, "What's GPS"? Here's a quick primer. GPS stands for "global positioning system." There are satellites up there in space, beaming signals back to the earth. A receiver that's mounted in a vehicle, or boat, or missile, or even hand-held, can receive those signals and calculate the exact spot where you're standing, or driving, or flying, what direction you're going and how fast, etc.]

Shades of "Big Brother," huh? That's why most people don't like it - in these parts, we don't like the government keeping such close track of us.

But get used to the notion... long-term, I bet we'll see more of this. If you wanted to get sophisticated, you could keep track of the miles driven in Idaho, and outside the state boundaries. You could even get fancier. For example, you might charge people 10 cents per mile if they're contributing to the I-84 rush-hour traffic jam, but only 5 cents per mile in the off-hours, or if they're driving down Franklin Road. Heck! You could even penalize people who are exceeding the speed limit, by taxing them more! (I'm not saying any of this is good or bad... just describing possible scenarios.)

A mileage-based tax would encourage an underground industry that specializes in odometer tweakage, GPS file hacking, etc. I'm just sayin'. And like the registration fee, a per-mile tax would exclude the despised Californians. And the tolerated Oregonians, Utahns, etc. (Tourism is a growing and desirable industry. I don't know what share of the roadbuilding and upkeep fees should be shared with our tourists... but it should be part of the discussion.)


Nobody (except maybe for the followers of Pope Algore) wants to see higher gas prices. It would be a brave politician indeed, who would advocate for 20 cents more per gallon, when gas is already four bucks.

But compared with the plans that Butch has proposed so far, it seems more equitable.
- The guy in the Hummer will pay more per mile, than the guy in the Geo Metro.
- The guy who drives 20,000 miles will pay more than the guy who drives 2000 miles.
- We also include the tourists, at least the tourists who are driving (and thus putting wear and tear on our roads).

Plus, it's easily collected.

Opponents point out that as people drive more fuel-efficient vehicles, revenues will drop.

What's the alternative? Should gas misers be punished, or taxed at a higher rate than gas guzzlers? As a general rule, the better fuel mileage a car gets, the less wear-and-tear it's likely to put on the road, because of lighter weight. (There are exceptions, and will be more if we evolve towards non-internal-combustion vehicles, etc. And maybe a new revenue method needs to be implemented for non-traditional vehicles... I don't know.)

Another consideration is border areas. Gas merchants who are just barely in Idaho could suffer, if the guys two blocks away in Oregon or Washington are selling gas for 20 cents less. (But those Oregon and Washington guys are more likely to raise their prices by 15 cents, and pad their own pockets a little more.)

There is not, and never will be, a revenue-collecting method that's fair for everybody. There are disadvantages to any of 'em. But if we need a big influx of cash... from this observer's viewpoint, as unpalatable as it may be, the gas tax seems like the most fair and easy way to collect from the actual roadway users. Substantially more so than either a registration tax or an odometer tax. And the Libertarians should take Butch's membership card away for even suggesting those other ideas!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


1964 was the first election that I can remember much about. '64 was the year when Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson went up against Republican Barry Goldwater. I remember it mostly because my parents were strongly in favor of Goldwater. (Johnson won handily, of course, and the rest is history. Or "Great Society," as Johnson liked to call it.)

(I remember earlier presidents. Eisenhower came to Boise and I saw him as a young kid, at a rally at the "BJC Gymnasium," which was the biggest venue in town at the time. And of course I remember Kennedy - I remember the "Cuban Missile Crisis," and vividly recall the fateful day that ended his presidency.)

Back in '64, the line between the two parties was more clearly drawn, IMO.

The Democrats were proponents of social (government) programs to attack society's woes, like poverty, illiteracy, etc. The Republicans were more of the philosophy of "keep government out of the way, and let people govern themselves."

When I was an idealistic youth, the notion of the government taking care of society's problems had a lot of appeal. But as I have matured - maybe it was parental influence, or maybe just pragmatism - my viewpoint has evolved to become solidly "small government is good government."

I've spent a lifetime observing that government "solutions" are almost always at best inefficient, and at worst colossal disasters.

Look at Social Security, for example. What a great notion! A government program that will provide a lifetime of income to its retired citizens, paid for by the next generation. I've got a huge stake in Social Security. Between myself and my employers, we've contributed over $130,000, that would otherwise have been in my paychecks. (And maybe in my self-managed private retirement account, along with interest.) So... it's in a government account instead... right? Heck NO! It's gone into the giant government bucket and gets spent as quickly as it goes in. Along with billions that are borrowed. The other shoe just hasn't dropped yet.

So you'd think I'd be solidly Republican, huh?

Not necessarily so.

The parties have evolved, too. Or at least the politicians of those parties. The lines have been blurred.

Look at 2008.

In this corner, we have Democrat Barack Obama. He's making a lot of promises - "change we can believe in." His whole life seems to have been evolving toward a philosophy that government can - and should - be addressing most of the problems we're having, or might have.

Of course, social programs cost money. Obama doesn't talk much about money in his awesome, eloquent speeches. But when he does, he talks about taking more from those in the highest income brackets, and from corporations, etc. (Which should appeal to us poor folks, huh? We'll get more from government, while not paying any more.)

That's pretty much the Democratic Party Line.

How about the other guy?

Republican John McCain has always fancied himself the "maverick." The guy who will cross over the blurred party lines when it suits him. The man who isn't afraid to align himself with the Democrats, to get things done.

What's John McCain's philosophy? I really don't know. All I know is, it's not necessarily the "Republican platform," or the "Democrat platform."

Although he's been a career politician, he isn't distinguished as a fiscal conservative. He's voted for plenty of new social programs and increased spending over the years. He loves pork as much as the next guy. And he's currently advocating additional government solutions to the current-events problems we're facing, more regulations (more government oversight), etc., etc.

And how will McCain pay for it?

He doesn't talk much about money, either. But when he does... he promises a tax CUT! (In theory, that would stimulate the economy, resulting in more revenue for government, in the long run. In the meantime, we'll just borrow more money!)

The Hallowed Halls of Government are packed with politicians - both Democrat and Republican - who love Big Government, and are doing everything they can to expand it.

No matter who we vote for - McCain or Obama - Happy Days are Here Again! (If we believe what they're telling us.)

How about the "social issues"?

I think we can all agree the two "biggies" are abortion and guns.

There seems to be some space between the two candidates. Although oddly, neither seems eager to discuss their differences. (And they haven't come up in the debates, at least so far.) Perhaps they are afraid that if they come across as ideologues on those issues, it will turn off some of their voters.

Obama seems to lean pro-abortion, anti-gun. McCain seems to lean anti-abortion, pro-gun.

And maybe that's enough. But I wish they had the courage to declare forcefully their beliefs.

Are these the best two guys we've got? Frankly, it doesn't give me a lot of confidence. I pray for this great country, no matter who is our next president. And it will be one of these two guys.

Why can't we vote NONE OF THE ABOVE, and have a do-over?

I'm seriously leaning toward voting "none of the above" by voting for Bob Barr, the Libertarian candidate.

My own philosophy leans Libertarian (although certainly not "party line"), and I've voted for Libertarians several times in the past. Where it differs, it mostly aligns with Bob Barr. (And unless I'm running for President myself, I will NOT find somebody I'm in total agreement with.)

"Why would you throw away your vote?" you might ask.

Which is better, throwing a vote away, or voting for a guy you don't like, for the job? (Or casting a vote against the guy you don't like even more?)

The Demicans and Republocrats have had 232 years to get it right. Maybe it's time to look at an alternative.