This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.
One of the most frustrating pieces of getting new transportation solutions online in Washington State is our regressive and limiting tax structure. We currently use sales taxes to finance Sound Transit (in addition to MVET). Our overall tax system is in dire need of reform. In the meantime, car taxes and sales taxes end up being used as the path of least resistance.
In what might be a first effort to break through that logjam, David Goldstein had a provocative post yesterday arguing that we can, in fact, tax gasoline, so long as it’s a sales tax and not an excise tax:
The other day I suggested that Washington state dramatically increase the motor fuel excise tax to pay for a massive investment in rail and other mass transit infrastructure. It was admittedly a bit of a thought experiment, as our state Constitution mandates that all motor vehicle fuel excise tax revenues be dedicated towards ‘highways,’ and of course, amending the Constitution remains exceedingly difficult.
But then I got to thinking. Article II, Section 40 specifically refers to ‘excise taxes.’ There’s nothing in the Constitution that says we can’t also levy a sales tax on motor vehicle fuel, and there’s nothing to mandate how such revenues might be spent. Thus all the hooey we’ve been fed about how we can’t spend gas tax dollars on anything but roads and ferries is exactly that… a bunch of hooey. A simple majority in both houses, and the stroke of the governor’s pen is all we need to create a dedicated fund for building mass transit. And of course, the people are free to vote yea or nay via referendum or initiative.
This isn’t just amateur legal analysis on my part. I checked with a constitutional scholar who assured me that my reading was correct, and that similar proposals have indeed been debated from time to time. And it’s not such an original or off the wall idea; nine other states already levy both sales and excise taxes on gasoline.
Read the whole thing. Even Sound Transit acknowledges that we could have the Eastside link up and running 10 years sooner if we had the financing right. That’s worth considering.
Update: Josh Feit has a lot more data supporting the idea that Washingtonians don’t pay that much in taxes after all.