Dilemma: Love the Roads, Distrust the Government

Most Americans love their highways and bridges, but their gratitude often falls short of coughing up additional tax revenue to build or maintain roads.

Mon September 15, 2014 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson

You gotta feel sorry for the poor American taxpayer. He is leaned on to pay for everything from neighborhood dogcatchers to global wars. Yet when he objects, the lament too often is dismissed as selfish grumbling. Maybe we should listen for a change.

Nowhere is the tax complaint more evident than in discussion of highway construction. Most Americans love their highways and bridges, the sweeping grandeur of interstates and meandering likeability of mountain roads. Americans are grateful for their roadways.

But their gratitude often falls short of coughing up additional tax revenue to build or maintain roads. Why? The answer is reflected in the comment in August of a Jefferson City man after Missouri voters rejected a sales tax increase for transportation: “I think we’ve got enough taxes already, and I think they need to spend their money more wisely.”

The man is not just voicing anti-tax claptrap. He is bothered by fact. The fact is, tax dollars too often are spent inefficiently. Too much overhead. Too much skimming off and rounding up. Too much grandiose thinking. Too little personal ownership of a job and stewardship of public money. The cliché “Good enough for government work” is grounded in observation. Entirely warranted is public disdain for bureaucracy that slavishly loves regulations and rules.

Raising the sales tax three-quarters of a cent isn’t what scuttled the Show-Me State ballot issue. Knowing that it would generate more than a half-billion dollars did. The thinking went something like this: “They’re just going to waste all that money.”

That kind of thinking comes from watching the federal government’s war on poverty that, after 50 years and $12 trillion, has barely dented poverty rates. Or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that after expenditure of several trillion dollars over a decade may have to be fought again because of political bungling. And then there was the “shovel-ready” stimulus that cost more than a billion dollars without turning much soil. American highways and bridges need fixing, all right, but the credibility of government needs fixing first.

American taxpayers are cynical and distrusting for a reason. Regardless of where they live, they are in a show-me state of mind.

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