Cleveland Plain Dealer: Short-sighted to slash Ohio gas taxes now

In 2019, newly elected Gov. Mike DeWine fought hard and successfully for a long-overdue and desperately needed increase in Ohio’s gas and diesel taxes — making a passionate pitch in his first State of the State for the urgency of fixing the state’s bridges and roads.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s editorial board strongly supported DeWine in his wise bid to keep the state’s highways, bridges and roads safe. Nothing less was on the line.

It took months of persuasion and negotiation by the Republican governor to convince the GOP-led General Assembly to accept the need for higher gas and diesel taxes to pay for road and bridge repairs, but ultimately, DeWine’s position prevailed.

Reason: The crumbling state of Ohio’s roads and bridges could no longer be ignored.

Now, some GOP lawmakers — led by state Sen. Steve Huffman of Tipp City in southwest Ohio, who opposed that 2019 gas-tax compromise — want to unwind that deal and return to the old gas and diesel tax rates of 28 cents per gallon, at least for the next five years.

Huffman has introduced Senate Bill 277, which would slash gas taxes 27% and diesel fuel taxes 40%. The gas-tax reduction would amount to 10.5 cents per gallon, or a little over $1 for every 10 gallons pumped.

A number of the GOP legislators who’ve signed on to his bill also opposed the 2019 deal.

Their excuse this time: rising gas prices. Appealing though that cause may be — and many Ohioans have suffered sticker shock at seeing $4-a-gallon and higher gas prices — it’s short-sighted and wrong.

Short-sighted, given the still-pressing need to repair, improve and expand Ohio’s network of roads and bridges. And mistaken to believe that gas taxes are helping inflate gas costs — they aren’t.

As cleveland.com’s Sean McDonnell recently pointed out, Ohio and federal taxes are charged on a per-gallon basis. They do not rise with the price of gas. What’s more, even federal and state taxes combined make up a relatively small part of what people pay at the pump.

What’s driving up gas costs aren’t Ohio gas taxes. The real spur are market jitters over oil and gas supplies as anti-Russian sanctions tied to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine take hold. And few Ohioans would quibble with the need to exact an economic price from Russia and its oil oligarchs, even if it causes higher prices here.

What’s more, the need to repair Ohio bridges and roads hasn’t magically gone away. As DeWine argued three years ago, having sufficient state and local resources to keep bridges and roads safe is a fundamental role of a responsive and responsible government.

Little wonder that DeWine today strongly opposes the Huffman bill.

“We need this money to keep our roads going and repair our roads and make our roads safer,” DeWine said, “so it would just be a mistake to do that,” the Statehouse News Bureau reported.

The fuel-tax rollback in SB 277 would dearly cost both state and local governments, crimping their capacity to maintain, repair and improve roads and bridges, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Service Commission.

According to LSC analysts, the bill, if passed as introduced, would slash the Ohio Department of Transportation’s budget by $481 million during the year that will begin July 1, and by an additional $492 million in the year after that, for a total of $973 million. In round numbers, that’s $1 billion in unfilled potholes, rickety bridges and dangerous intersections.

Huffman counters that Ohio will receive substantial federal infrastructure funding. But that’s a one-time pool, when Ohio roads and bridges need continuous upkeep.

Likewise, Ohio’s local governments would lose almost $800 million over two years to maintain, repair and improve local streets and roads.

Over two years, the estimated losses to the state’s counties would be $296 million; to cities and villages, $342 million; and to townships, $160 million. And for ODOT as well as for those local governments – county, municipal and township – the annual losses would increase in each succeeding year.

DeWine is correct. It would be a major and foolish mistake to cut transportation funding – something crucial not only to Ohioans’ safety but also Ohio’s economy. And it’s telling that a number of the legislators behind this proposed gas-tax reduction are those who opposed the gas-tax increase in the first place.

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Cleveland Plain Dealer