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Sarah Nuckles: Tricky Gas Tax Poll Question

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“ARE WE REALLY TRYING TO JUSTIFY INCREASING SOUTH CAROLINA’S TAX BURDEN?”

|| By SARAH NUCKLES || I just graduated from Winthrop University last May, and was privileged to learn from excellent professors I had in the Graduate College of Business. However, I am disappointed the political science division of the College of Arts and Sciences at Winthrop formulated the recent gas tax question which, in my opinion, led a “yes” answer to the poll question – something we were cautioned against in order to get polls that reflect true public opinion and useful results. I question who might have pushed Winthrop to do the gas tax polling, since this was the second poll on the subject and what its geographic area was.

The Winthrop University poll question was:

“There is currently a proposal in the South Carolina Legislature to increase the state gas tax by up to 10 cents a gallon. This would increase the cost of gas in the state, but a gallon of gas in South Carolina would still be cheaper than a gallon of gas in North Carolina or Georgia. The money raised would be restricted to use for infrastructure, such as repairing roads and bridges.”

An earlier poll found that the respondents did NOT favor an increase in the gas tax, but this poll changed the result to a YES, because it said that the gas tax would be cheaper than North Carolina and Georgia.  I wonder if drivers in the Midlands or areas not adjoining Georgia or North Carolina care if South Carolina’s gas “would still be cheaper.”

The question failed to mention that North Carolina has the eighth highest gas tax in the nation and Georgia has the 20th highest while South Carolina’s gas tax is almost the lowest in the nation at 47th, according to data from the Tax Foundation.

Adding 10 cents per gallon (a 63 percent increase) would place South Carolina at around 23rd highest! The question also did not state how much of the gas tax goes to other uses and not “repairing roads and bridges.”  The political powers in South Carolina always seem to find ways to remove funds from maintenance to political projects leaving our roads and bridges in worse condition.

And – why did the question compare South Carolina to Georgia and North Carolina?  Just because we adjoin each other does not mean that our tax structure should be the same, particularly when population and average income is higher in Georgia and North Carolina.  South Carolina has one of the LOWEST average income rates in the Nation, which means a gas tax increase of 63 percent is more regressive – it hurts!  In fact, North Carolina legislators are trying to LOWER their rate by one cent because of the heat they have gotten over their high rates.  Are we really trying to justify increasing the South Carolina tax burden? That is nothing to be proud of!  This poll is going to be used to push the legislature to increase gas tax by 63 percent, along with multi-billion dollar, highly inflated transportation needs numbers provided by industry insiders like the TRIP lobby group and the S.C. Coalition to Fix Our Roads.

S.C. ROADS

S.C. ROADS

Further, no one knows whether the amount of increased fuel tax from a 10-cent increase (approximately $350-400 million per year) would go to “repairing roads and bridges.”  Nor, does it say that if new “restricted” funds come into the SC Department of Transportation (SCDOT), the older pot of money might be shifted to other political purposes, therefore not increasing the repair of roads and bridges. The politicizing of SCDOT revenues is well-known.  Legislators with high seniority and concentration of power can divert a significant portion to their favorite, jurisdictional projects – not based on statewide priorities, but on legislative influence through the SCDOT commissioners.

Good polls that are independent and as statistically unbiased as possible are good tools to gauge public opinion and I appreciate them.  Professional poll watchers generally look to see how several polls compare before making important positions.  If some members of our legislature intend to use the Winthrop gas tax poll to push their political interest in raising the gas tax, I would suggest they call for a statewide referendum voter poll to gauge taxpayer opinion on tax increases, and make certain the wording clearly informs the taxpayers of their decision.  Or, if the legislature prefers university polls, they might try the Quinnipiac University poll which is widely known nationwide and a charter member of the Transparency Initiative.

Governor Nikki Haley also wishes to lower the state income tax by 21.4 percent, that will apply mostly to medium and high incomes, while South Carolina has a large population of low income wages and retirees, perhaps one of the lowest in the Nation – which means an income tax decrease won’t matter to them, but a gas tax will hit low income workers very hard as they try to find and keep jobs.  The Governor did NOT favor a gas tax increase during her first term, but it changed after her election for a second term. How many remember: “read my lips – no new taxes” a former U.S. President stated so infamously.

SCDOT needs increased funding for resurfacing secondary and rural roads and deficient bridges, but it should come from surplus revenues coming into the state. And, more importantly, any new funds coming into the SCDOT should only be used to resurface roads and repair bridges.  This is what the taxpayers want to see. Those surplus funds are due to the improved economy, and the people driving to work in their new jobs are providing those increased funds to our state tax coffers.  Why would we want to hurt the goose laying the golden egg by hitting them with a higher gas tax?

In fact, the state’s Bureau of Economic Advisors forecasts higher surplus in the future as well – and legislators are having a hard time deciding how to spend all that money!

And should we mistakenly think it’s OK to raise the gas tax while the price of oil is low – don’t believe it.  The U.S. is now “energy independent” due to fracking and shale oil fields, but, with increasing exports of oil and natural gas as approved by Congress, worldwide demand may cause an increase in the prices in our domestic economy, especially if the European, China, and Indian economies pick up.  There will be price increases and it’s already going back up.

Just read what Nancy Pelosi said:

“With gas prices low, maybe motorists won’t notice that we’re gouging them: If there’s ever going to be an opportunity to raise the gas tax, the time (is) when gas prices are so low — oil prices are so low — is the time to do it.”

Sarah Nuckles served as a South Carolina transportation commissioner from 2008-2012.

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