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Commentary: Voters’ Trust Vital When Transportation Issues on Table

Tue July 15, 2008 - Southeast Edition

For years we have heard complaints about government getting too big — too many taxes and too much spending. Now the worm has turned —revenues are declining. There are no discussions about new programs, only discussion about what programs to cut and/or eliminate.

In Florida, we have always had a fairly stable source of transportation revenue made up of user fees. Our normal growth allowed these revenues to increase every year. Certainly, we saw a need for additional funding; but at least our program showed growth each year.

“My how the time’s they are a changing,” as gas tax revenues actually dropped in 2007 from the previous year. No, people aren’t driving less, our cars are getting much better gas mileage and gas tax collections reflect that. At the same time, overall state revenues fell for the second consecutive year. I’m not yet sure what the end result will be this legislative session but eventually something has to change.

We can only play this game so long and continue not taking a big hit. Revenues are declining. The elected officials at the state level refuse to consider any tax or fee increases. To many, the State Transportation Trust Fund appears to be a large, untapped bundle of available cash. That is of course not true; but once it is raided, the damage will be there for years.

The state is going through an exercise to cut all the “fat” out of the budget. They are now through the fat, and into the muscle and bone; the vital organs are not far behind. You cannot expect any lawmaker to choose between a child’s education or healthcare and a transportation project. Transportation will lose every time. The point is they should never get to the point of having to make choices like that.

There are certain things that government should provide, like public safety, education and transportation. And I imagine most people agree that a certain amount of healthcare assistance should be provided, after that, however, the voter must make choices.

Currently, it appears that many voters want to cut spending dramatically, cap revenue growth and prohibit any tax or fee increases. Remember the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it!” We do need responsible use of our tax dollars. Local and state government over the last decade has seen a tremendous growth in revenues. Rather than invest in capital projects for our aging infrastructure, many governments have spent like drunken sailors on one new program after another. All these programs need revenue on a recurring annual basis because once established, these programs, their staffs and proponents are difficult to eliminate.

The reaction of many is to cap revenue and say “no” to any increases in fees or taxes. There is no trust in government to spend the money wisely. The Taxation and Budget Reform Commission approved a statutory recommendation that the legislature increase funding for transportation by adjusting a series of fees that basically have not been touched for years. At the same time, the Florida House is proposing to take the current tag fee money from the State Transportation Trust Fund and use it for non-transportation purposes. The House will be quick to point out they are not raising taxes or fees; however, it fails to mention that it is breaking a promise to the people to spend Transportation Trust Fund money (user fees) on transportation.

Who can blame the public if they are skeptical of providing more money for transportation? Raising taxes and fees for specific areas of government, like transportation, would be much easier if the public trusted government to spend the money for its intended purpose.

No one knows how the current session will unfold. Over the next few years the budget situation is not very pretty. Changes must be made. The answer is not a blanket pledge signed by a lawmaker stating, “No new taxes.” The answer is a government that earns the trust of the voters to spend money responsibly while investing in the future for all who follow us. No one will argue that government spending in many areas is out of control, and governments seem determined to spend every dollar they collect. But it is up to the voters to demand a change. Hold our elected leaders responsible to make the right choices. We have the strong leadership in our legislature and with our governor to earn this trust.

The challenges are great and the solutions are not simple. Our elected leaders know what needs to be done. The question that remains is, “will they do it?”

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