9 states vote to increase transportation funding this year — all with GOP votes

Even in the reddest states, legislatures are biting the bullet and raising revenues for roads. Why not California?

December 17th, 2015 | Posted by John Frith

Strategists who helped run successful campaigns to persuade lawmakers in three conservative states participated in a webinar last week to explain how they persuaded Republican lawmakers (and governors) to support raising the gas tax in their states.

Since California lawmakers recognize there’s a big problem with state and local streets and roads but so far haven’t come up with a solution, we thought we’d sit in on the webinar, which was sponsored by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), a national transportation advocacy group.

The speakers confirmed that what the Alliance and its partners in the Transportation Coalition have been doing for years is the correct approach, so we thought we’d dig a little deeper. ARTBA has placed detailed case studies on its Transportation Investment Advocacy Center website, so we looked them up. It turns out that nine states this year have increased transportation funding. And in every case, Republican votes were needed.

We thought a look at what each of the nine states enacted, and how lawmakers voted, might be instructive as California’s special legislative session continues.

Democratic/mixed-control states

Delaware flagDelaware has a Democratic governor and overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature, but they needed a three-fifths vote in both houses to pass legislation to raise DMV fees to generate new revenue and were one vote short in the Senate. To obtain Republican support, Democratic leaders reduced the size of the package from $50 million to $23.9 million and added a lockbox provision to ensure the extra funds were used for transportation. They also agreed to prevailing wage reform, and in the end three Republican senators switched their votes, allowing the bill to pass on June 30.

State officials recognized additional funding was urgently needed after a major Interstate bridge was temporarily closed for repairs in 2014 after major structural damage was discovered.

Washington flagIn Washington, the governor and the lower house are controlled by Democrats while Republicans control the Senate. The legislation raised gas taxes by 11.9 cents per gallon along with transportation fees to generate $1 billion a year over the next 16 years. It also authorized Seattle-area residents to vote on a local tax increase to expand light-rail service.

The governor’s original proposal included a $400 million per year carbon tax, but after months of debate the final package included a provision that prevents transit funding if the governor enacted a low-carbon fuel standard. On July 1, both houses approved the bill. In the Senate, 18 Republicans voted yes and five voted no. In the House approved, 10 Republicans supported it while 36 voted no. The governor strongly opposed the carbon tax provision but ultimately said the transportation funding was too important to veto. (Like several states that passed funding measures this year, Washington lawmakers succeeded on a second try. A funding bill died in 2013 when senators were unable to force a floor vote on the last day of the session.)

Iowa flagIowa also has mixed control with a Republican governor and House and a Democratic Senate. The bill, approved in February, increased the gas tax by 10 cpg (the first increase since 1989) and is expected to raise $204 million in the upcoming fiscal year. The vote was bipartisan with narrow majorities of both parties supporting the bill in each house. In the Senate, 12 Republicans supported it while 11 opposed it. In the House, 30 Republicans voted yes and 26 voted no.The governor supported the plan and the powerful Farm Bureau strongly supported the measure. (The Iowa legislature had also failed to pass a transportation funding bill in 2013 when it was previously considered.)

Said Republican Gov. Terry Branstad:

I know it’s not easy and I know that there also are people on the other side, but there is a critical need for additional funding for our roads and bridges in the state of Iowa.

Republican states

In the remaining six states, Republicans control both branches of government.

Michigan flagAfter voters overwhelmingly shot down a complicated transportation funding ballot measure in the summer, lawmakers in Michigan in November narrowly approved a bill to increase the gas tax by 7.3 cents per gallon (it was last raised in 1997), apply the motor fuel tax to alternative fuels and create a new fee for electric vehicles. It will also index the gas tax beginning in 2022. The compromise package, which also expanded property tax credits and amended the income tax, is expected to increase transportation funding by $1.2 billion a year. Interestingly, only two Democrats in the Legislature supported the bill, which enjoyed strong Republican support. The vote in the House was 55-52 and in the Senate was 20-18. Republicans supported it in the Senate 19-8 and in the House 54-7.

Said Republican Gov. Rick Snyder:

The state House and Senate today approved a fiscally responsible, comprehensive transportation plan that provides a long-term solution with new revenue that also provides long-term tax relief. This is the largest investment in Michigan roads and bridges in more than half a century, making them safer for Michiganders long into the future.

Utah flagIn Utah, lawmakers in March approved a compromise measure that raised the gas tax by 5 cents per gallon and eventually will replace it with a 12 percent tax on the average wholesale price of fuel. It also allows counties to seek voter approval for 1/4-cent sales tax increases to fund local transportation projects. The gas tax was last raised in 1997.

In the Senate, 15 Republicans voted for the bill while eight voted no. In the House, the GOP vote was 35-26. Legislation to increase transportation funding the year before died in the Senate as many senators did not want to vote for a tax increase in an election year. Governor Gary Herbert and legislative leaders brought the issue back at the very beginning of this year’s session.

Upon signing the bill, the governor stated:

A strong transportation infrastructure has played a critical role in our economic growth and it will continue to do so thanks to this bill. This session we took the necessary steps to address the discrepancy between the funds we have set aside for transportation and the funds we will need to support our growing population and keep commerce flowing through our state for decades to come.

Georgia flagGeorgia lawmakers in March approved a measure that boosts transportation funding by $900 million a year. The bill simplified a complicated system that included an excise tax and a sales tax on fuel and raised the effective gas tax by 6.7 cpg and the diesel tax by 7.7 cpg. The bill also imposed a $200 annual fee for non-commercial electric cars ($300 for commercial vehicles) and created a new annual impact fee for heavy trucks. The bill also canceled a $5,000 tax credit for electric cars.

In the House, Republicans supported it 77-35 and in the Senate the GOP vote was 25-11.

Upon signing the bill into law, Gov. Nathan Deal stated:

Each day, Georgians set out in the pursuit of a brighter future, and it is our roads and bridges that bear the weight of our success. We’ve reached the point where we can no longer keep up with the growing infrastructure demand that encourages job creation, maintains our businesses’ bottom lines and takes us home to our families….Today, we are ensuring that Georgia’s economic engine will remain running for generations to come.

south dakota flagIn South Dakota, the governor this year changed from opposing a gas tax increase to supporting it because the state’s bridges are in bad shape and the road network was expected to rapidly deteriorate without action. The measure increased gas taxes by 6 cpg (the first increase since 1999), raised the motor vehicle excise tax by 1 percent and increased license plate fees by 20 percent. It also raised the maximum speed limit on I-29 and I-90 to 80 mph. In all, the measure is expected to raise an additional $85 million a year for state and local road and bridge projects. The bill passed easily with strong Republican majorities — 21-4 in the Senate with an abstention and 46-9 in the House with three abstentions.

Said Gov. Dennis Dauggard:

Maintaining our roads and bridges is a fundamental function of government. In order for us to get to work, school, church or the grocery store, we have to have adequate roads. This important legislation will significantly aid state and local governments in maintaining and improving infrastructure.

Idaho flagIdaho legislators voted in April to increase the gas tax by 7 cpg (it was last raised in 1996), raise vehicle registration fees and institute a new fee on electric and hybrid cars. In addition, half of any general fund surplus in the next two years would be allocated to transportation. The package is anticipated to raise almost $95 million a year. (A slightly larger funding proposal failed in 2013.)

In the Senate, 20 Republicans voted yes and 8 voted no. In the House, 38 voted yes and 18 voted no.

Said Gov. Butch Otter:

It represents compromise, concession and a realization that — in the face of apparent intransigence — something indeed is better than nothing. In fact, (it) is a respectable start on a multi-year effort to provide for the long-term needs of our transportation infrastructure, including hundreds of bridges throughout Idaho that every day are reaching the end of their lifespans.

nebraska flagFinally, in Nebraska, which has a unicameral nonpartisan legislature controlled by Republicans and a Republican governor opposed to tax increases, legislation to gradually increase the gas tax by 6 cpg over four years was approved in May on a vote of 26-18 with eight abstentions, but Gov. Pete Ricketts immediately vetoed it. The state’s funding mechanism had remained unchanged since 1995.

Thirty votes were needed to override the veto and a week after the first vote three lawmakers who abstained the first time voted to override, as did one who initially voted against the bill. Republican members supported the override 20-13 with two abstentions. It is expected that the funding increase will generate $25.4 million for the state a year and an additional $50.8 million annually for cities and counties once the tax increase is fully implemented.

Senator Al Davis, the Republican lawmaker who switched, said in an op-ed the following day:

Gov. Ricketts made some excellent points in opposing the gasoline tax increase, but our infrastructure is constantly decaying and upkeep is costly but necessary. If we want good roads, safe bridges and divided highways, we must be able to access resources. I believe residents of my district deserve good highways to travel the long distances which are a part of life in a sparsely populated region of the state, and that’s largely why I ultimately voted to support the gas tax.

In 2014, New Hampshire and Rhode Island increased transportation funding, and in 2013 Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Vermont, Oregon, Wyoming, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Texas and Massachusetts did likewise. So in the last three years, 21 of the 50 states have passed difficult legislation to rebuild their infrastructure.

We remain hopeful that California will soon follow suit.