The debate over how to pay for the nation’s roads, bridges and transit systems is leading some normally anti-tax Republicans to embrace higher levies on motorists — even a new one based on miles driven instead of fuel purchased.
But some Democrats who have supported the idea of charging a mileage fee are now opposed. They see infrastructure as an economic stimulus measure and want it paid for by corporate taxes.
That change of positions has Washington observers scratching their heads.
“If you took the positions and went back 10 years, you would say, ‘What?’” said Adrian Moore, vice president of policy at Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.
The debate about whether motorists or corporations should foot the bill is threatening to scuttle negotiations between President Joe Biden and Senate Republicans for a massive infrastructure plan. Biden pulled out of one-on-one talks with West Virginia Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito, but the White House has said he is still engaged with a separate, bipartisan group of senators despite some Democrats agitating for their party to go it alone.
The bipartisan Senate group has agreed to pitch a $1.2 trillion eight-year infrastructure spending package to Biden, according to people familiar with the deliberations, an amount that’s still well below the $1.7 trillion Biden had proposed in his direct talks with Capito. . . .
Indexing the gasoline tax -- currently 18.4 cents per gallon -- to a measure of inflation has been discussed by the bipartisan group working on a compromise plan, according to Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican who’s taken a prominent role in those talks. He said it wouldn’t raise much money.
Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said Thursday he’s in favor of indexing the gas tax. Still, it’s unclear whether the White House would endorse such a move.
As recently as two months ago, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the so-called vehicle-mile tax was under consideration in the Biden administration as a way for all motorists to pay for the upkeep of roads. The advantage of the VMT is that it would offset losses in the federal gas tax brought on by the growing sales of electric cars.
But the White House has since reversed course, saying it would violate Biden’s pledge not to raise middle class taxes.
“I’m working hard to find common ground with Republicans when it comes to the American Jobs Plan, but I refuse to raise taxes on Americans making under $400,000 a year to pay for it,” Biden tweeted on Tuesday. “It’s long past time the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share. . . ."
Republicans have balked at the idea of raising corporate taxes to pay for roads.
“If you look at the last 30 years where we have passed in a bipartisan way, infrastructure bills here in Congress, they’ve always been predicated on user fees of some sorts,” Representative Darin LaHood, an Illinois Republican, said during a May 19 House Ways and Means Committee hearing.
“But instead, today, we’re talking about a diversion of the tax code talking about raising corporate rates to fund infrastructure,” he said.
Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn suggested last month that a 25-cent tax be imposed on every mile driven by heavy trucks to raise $33 billion a year -- about as much as the fuel tax.
Truckers immediately raised objections.
“We’re not opposed to VMT,” said Bill Sullivan, executive vice president for advocacy at the American Trucking Associations, which lobbies for large trucking companies. “What we’re violently opposed to is this idea of ‘Let’s just do this for trucks.’”
Republicans who opposed previous efforts to increase the gas tax or a move to a mileage fee argued it disproportionately affects lower income people, said Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department. Now, it’s Democrats making that argument and the GOP that’s suggesting user fees should be used to pay for roads and transit.
Ed Mortimer, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of Transportation and Infrastructure, attributed the shifting position among Republicans on user fees to their being accustomed to seeing electric vehicles as a Blue State phenomenon. So, he said, they ignored warnings about a gas tax shortfall -- until Republican-led states began seeing their fuel levies decline.
“Some Republicans who maybe have been reticent about user fees, when it comes to a user fee or corporate tax increase, maybe they’ve gotten a different perspective,” Mortimer said. . . .