Editorial: DeWine chooses rough road with gas-tax proposal

Mike DeWine accused Richard Cordray last fall of being someone who would raise taxes if elected governor.

So what has DeWine done during his first two months in office but propose an 18-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase to fix Ohio’s roads and bridges. That amounts to a 64-percent spike to the 28-cents-a-gallon now being paid.

It also would see Ohio having the fifth highest gas tax in the nation, a dramatic increase from its current 29th ranking.

Surely, that’s not how the new Republican governor envisioned beginning his first term. Then again, he had no idea the state was facing a $1.5 billion shortfall in its highway fund. That news was delivered to him in an 89-page report from a group of experts he commissioned to study Ohio’s transportation woes and make recommendations.

It makes for an interesting month as the new governor tries to push his $7.4 billion two-year transportation budget bill through the legislature by its March 31 deadline.

We’ll be the first to say we don’t want Ohio’s highways to resemble the axle-breaking roads of Michigan (drive across the state border if you don’t understand what we’re saying). However, we do question DeWine wanting the entire 18-cent gas-tax hike imposed at once — on July 1 — instead of being phased in over a few years. And is 18 cents too high?

We also wonder what, if any effect, such an increase would have on Ohio’s important transportation industry? The Buckeye state is the hub for many trucking companies. With 60 percent of the United States being within a day’s drive of Central Ohio, the state has the second highest concentration of truck drivers in the nation. Ohio’s current tax is lower than all neighboring states except for Kentucky – which makes it attractive to the trucking industry.

Local governments stand to be the big winners from DeWine’s proposal. The gas tax would raise $1.2 billion, with 60 percent of the funds going to the state and 40 percent to local governments. Supporters of the tax are trumpeting the increase as being a “user fee,” arguing the people who use the state’s roadways are being asked to maintain them. They also point out Ohio has gone 14 years without increasing its gas tax. With the cost of road construction increasing over the years, a dollar raised by the tax in 2005 is the equivalent of 59 cents today

Ohio’s House Speaker Larry Householder agrees there’s no question a revenue issue exists. People are driving more, resulting in more wear and tear on roads. Yet motorist are spending less at the pump — and thus paying less in gas tax — because vehicles are more fuel-efficient.

Householder’s counterpart in the Senate, Larry Obhof, however, has his foot on the brakes. The Republican Senate leader has expressed doubt that the road maintenance and construction system is in trouble and skepticism about 18 cents a gallon being too big of an increase. He is willing to bargain, though, saying he would likely support higher gas taxes if they were offset with an income tax cut.

What the state must avoid is selling bonds to raise the revenue. This “spend now, pay later strategy” of previous administrations has come close to maxing out the state’s credit cards. As is, the first $390 million collected by the gas tax goes to pay for debt service.

Ohio is not alone in seeking a highway funding issue.

DeWine is one of two Midwestern governors seeking a gas tax hike, the other being Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat. He is calling for a 20-cent increase. That’s more than Walz had suggested in his gubernatorial campaign, when he advocated for a 10-cents-a-gallon increase. Minnesota’s gas tax now stands at 28.6 cents per gallon.


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