Transportation spending is a matter of priorities

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. I point out that the lines of battle over transportation funding/spending are in the wrong place. We don’t have to raise taxes to spend more on transportation. If people think we need to spend more (I don’t), then they just need to prioritize it over other needs like education, prisons, etc. It about priorities and one of the biggest priorities should be to NOT raise taxes. Here’s a part:

If lawmakers want to spend more on transportation in the next budget, there is no need to raise taxes, implement toll roads, or create new taxes. All they have to do is designate more money from the general fund. The taxes and fees that feed the transportation fund create a spending floor, but lawmakers can spend as much as they want above and beyond that by using the general fund.

The rub is that the general fund, fueled by income, sales, and other taxes, is what is used to fund all of the other state’s priorities like education, environmentalprotection, law enforcement, and so much more. If lawmakers want to spend more on transportation from the general fund, they will need to explain why transportation needs the money more than all of the other budget needs. In other words, lawmakers will need to prioritize transportation spending along with all of the other needs of the state.

This is part of the normal budgeting process. Budgets are statements of priorities. There is always an infinite list of spending needs and wants and a limited amount of money to go around. Lawmakers are elected and paid to set those priorities and make the hard choices on behalf of their constituents.

The segregation of transportation funding all of these years has let lawmakers off the hook from the responsibility of prioritizing transportation spending. By having designated taxes for transportation, lawmakers could just spend every dollar generated by those taxes without having to explain why putting a dollar into concrete is more important than keeping a felon locked up or paying a teacher. The debate should not be about which transportation taxes need to be increased to support more spending. The debate should be about why spending more money on transportation is more important than spending that money on something else.