If an old saying has been around long enough to become an old saying, it’s typically because there is at least a modicum of truth behind it. So it is that we bring you two such sayings: The one about death and taxes, and the one about spending and prosperity.
Ben Franklin is credited with the first, reportedly writing in a letter to a friend, “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Fortunately, Franklin was right on the money about the new Constitution; unfortunately, he was equally accurate about death and taxes. The second axiom goes back to at least Herbert Hoover, and it was oft-repeated by Ronald Reagan, who liked to say, “You can’t spend your way to prosperity.”
Both of those truisms come to mind as forces have conspired this week to bring taxes and spending to the forefront of governmental news. Consider:
• The Washington Legislature is pondering a transportation package that likely would increase the state gas tax by at least 10 cents a gallon, yet provide precious little funding to projects in Clark County.
• Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., is proposing a 15-cent-per-gallon increase to the federal gas tax.
• Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is helping to lead budget negotiations with fellow congressional representatives while devising ways to raise federal revenue without creating new taxes. As The Washington Post reports, “They’re accomplishing this amazing feat of budgetary semantics by selling off government assets, auctioning spectrum (wireless technology), and tweaking federal employee pensions. The money these policies raise can be categorized as revenues. But none of these policies can be even loosely described as a tax increase.”
That’s a lot to digest. But each item falls, at least tangentially, under the umbrella of taxes and/or spending.
Take the proposed state gas tax. Washington drivers already pay 37.5 cents per gallon in state tax, and that number has been raised twice in the past decade. The current proposal is designed to generate $12.3 billion for transportation projects across the state, with $41.4 million of that — 0.34 percent — earmarked for Clark County. The passage of such a plan would be an affront to voters in Southwest Washington, who long have contributed mightily to transportation projects in the Puget Sound area without seeing their fair share of the revenue.
The federal proposal for a gas tax increase is equally undigestible. The tax has not been raised since 1993, and the nation’s roads and bridges are in need of attention. But the federal gas tax currently is 18.4 cents per gallon, and a call to raise that by more than 80 percent is outlandish. If roads and bridges are in need of attention, then Congress should make such projects a priority with the money it already receives. Tax hikes long have been a way for lawmakers to avoid setting priorities.
Such prioritizing is in the hands of Sen. Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who are leading budget talks with additional federal sequestration and a possible revival of the partial government shutdown looming. The trick is to allow Democrats to say that any potential deal isn’t entirely about spending cuts, and for Republicans to claim that no taxes will be raised. Washington, D.C., after all, is a place where saving face is more important than employing logic.
Which, come to think about it, could become another old saying.