I’m writing this particular post from my hotel room in Durham, NC, just across the way from Duke Hospital where my dad had surgery on yesterday. Thanks for all of your thoughts and prayers. He came through surgery just fine – although the family and I are quite worn out from dealing with Duke (yes, if you follow me on twitter, you’ll note that I’m still bitter about the complete lack of compassion and consideration demonstrated by the folks at Duke – it was very shocking).

As I was in the hospital room yesterday, I thought about a lot of things. At one point, I was holding my dad’s hand while he told me how much he hurt and watching my mom’s eyes turn even more red from exhaustion and worry, and it hit home how much it can suck to get older. So many things change. And so much of it is beyond your control.

In the midst of all of this, as I stood there pondering life, my dad cracked an inappropriate joke. It was, however, pretty funny and it made us all smile – heck, my brother and I laughed out loud as my mom kind of smacked him and put his oxygen machine back on his face. And in that moment, I realized that there is at least one perk to getting older: you are increasingly emboldened to say exactly what it is that you think without worrying about the consequences.

Just ask Alan Greenspan. And now, Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH). The 74-year-old Senator (and former mayor of Cleveland) has announced that he will retire in 2011. Before he goes, he has a few things he’d like to get off his chest. After already rankling the GOP in January with his comments on health care reform, Voinovich is stepping off the GOP platform on another issue: he firmly believes that the federal gas tax needs to be raised. He believes that a boost in the tax will help bring down the deficit and pay for a sizable transportation bill which has the capacity to create additional jobs.

Voinovich noted on his website that the federal gas tax hasn’t been touched since 1993. It currently sits at 18.4 cents a gallon. He says, about an increase, that boosting the tax “just a few cents could help create jobs, improve our infrastructure and better the climate.” He goes on to suggest that there are benefits to reducing car travel noting that “traffic congestion, for example, contributes almost 30 percent to our greenhouse gas emissions.”

Whoa. Increasing spending? Focusing on the environment? Raising taxes? What? Isn’t this terribly anti-Republican of him? Not especially. It’s anti-new-Republican of him. Voinovich tapped into his inner Reagan on this one, citing the former’s President’s comments that “Good tax policy decrees that, wherever possible, a fee for a service should be assessed against those who directly benefit from that service.

A boost in the federal gas tax is also not a new idea. It’s been kicked around before a number of times (clearly unsuccessfully) and Voinovich himself has been vocal about an increase since last year. So what gives?

Interestingly, Voinovich goes on to place the blame for not getting this done squarely on President Obama. He’s only half right. It’s true that Obama has not been supportive of the transportation bill but to suggest that the rest of Congress, including a sizable percentage of the GOP, would get behind a bill that would raise taxes on everyone is a bit disingenuous. Voinovich may be forgetting that he’s already announced his retirement: he doesn’t have to fight re-election ads which would surely spin a hike in the gas tax as raising taxes on the middle class when they could least afford it.

Still, you have to give Voinovich a lot of credit for saying what he thinks. That’s increasingly rare in Congress these days.

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Kelly Erb is a tax attorney, tax writer and podcaster.

Comments

  1. Have to agree about the getting older thing. I know from first hand experience. Sorry about the Duke experience. All my hospital stays have been pleasant with sensitive and caring staff. Never been to Duke though. Glad your dad is okay.

  2. I got my PhD at Duke and I’m also quite shocked at their attitude at the hospital. The shortest way from the dorm to the Econ building was right through the hospital, in one end, out the other. I married my first wife in the crypt in Duke Chapel; I didn’t realize that the remains of old JB Duke and many of his family were mouldering right next to us. Maybe that should have told me something . . .
    I also agree with the getting older part; aging isn’t all that bad. I’m kind of creaky and my back hurts some of the time, but I still have all my teeth and most of my hair and no arthritis, never have had surgery, and just got back from driving a 2000-mile round trip — so on balance I’m very lucky. And I get to say inappropriate things and fart in public.
    As for the gasoline tax, Sen Voinovich is absolutely right. The roads and bridges are in terrible shape and the $$ could take care of those problems and create 100,000’s of jobs. The tax could be increased 50% (9 cents) and “phased in” over 2 or 3 years by, say, raising it by a penny every 3 months — and no one would notice. The market price of gas can fluctuate by more than 9 cents in a week anyway. Another penny a gallon would raise the cost of a fill-up for my car by 10-12 cents; 9 cents would be around a dollar. At today’s prices 9 cents is less than a 4% increase overall. I think raising the gas tax would be one of the “easiest” tax increases to implement and collect.

  3. Good to hear that Voinovich is able to talk straight now that he has no more elections to win. Yup, we need to improve our aging highways. And start the long work needed to get our passenger rail and urban trolley systems back to providing the same wonderful coverage they did back in say 1912.

    But the Gas Tax is about to implode. Driving is down, people are buying more efficient cars, and the mandated mileage improvements will soon kick in. Add in the move to plug-in hybrids and electric cars, and we are likely so see a 20% to 40% decline in gasoline usage, looking 10 to 15 years out.

    We’ll need some consumption / usage based tax to replace the gas tax. Are you ready for EZ-Pass everywhere?

    Sorry about your experience with Duke Medical. We have had better experiences, over on the college side. Never had to work through the medical maze.

  4. TrueCostPricing Reply

    When gas prices were $4 a gallon, a tax should have been put in place that kept gas prices at $4 a gallon when the underlying commodity price collapsed. I said this at the time. Then we’d have plenty of money for all sorts of things like bridges, renewable energy research, wars for oil, cleaning up the BP mess, etc–plus paying for all the TRUE costs of running around like big shots on fossil fuels.

    Maybe you could decide on a few breaks from the tax–mass transit? commercial diesel? church vehicles? I dunno. But NOT Joe 6-bedroom who can’t bear to use mass transit but is okay with living a TWO HOUR round trip from work, and of course needs a big honking Escalade to make all those miles safe and living-room-like.

  5. TrueCostPricing Reply

    Oh, and by the way–I gave up my car in 2003, I put the hundreds of dollars per month of savings per month into living a 4 minute bike ride away from work and walkable to almost everything else, do as many errands as I can on the bike, and only drive a car about 600 miles a year.

    I know I am staying younger, less obese, and less arthritic than I would driving around in the car.

  6. I applaud Voinovich’s comments, though you’re absolutely right about their being disengenuous at this point. However, I’m also disappointed at Obama’s lack of support for the plan. One of the principal reasons that I, a Republican, voted for Obama was that I perceived something akin to a new New Deal on the horizon: a national effort for civil service, infrastructure improvement, energy reform. While it’s true that the President has been distracted by pressing matters (Kagan, BP, Afghanistan), his progress in these other areas has left me wanting, to say the least. (Truthfully, I’m still glad to have supported him: the thought of a McCain-Palin administration gives me cold sweats to this day.)

    Go ahead and raise the tax, Congress. Just fix the roads! Tax my energy consumption too, just get to work on the environment! Tax tax tax, Congress…go ahead, I dare you. Get me my money’s worth and I’ll be a happy camper indeed! (Just no more wars, all right? I’ve got these two kids rapidly approaching majority and if they end up going overseas I’d rather they’re at Cambridge than Kabul.)

  7. While I agree the roads need improvement, especially here in Missouri, I disagree that raising the fuel tax is going to help.
    A seemingly innocent increase may not seem like very much to the consumer who fills up once a week, or even to me who has a 70-mile, one-way commute and goes through a tank of gas every other day. Where this increase is going to hurt us is in the increase in transportation costs. Increased costs to transport goods from distribution centers to the corner store will not be swallowed by the retailer, they will be worked into the cost of the goods (groceries, clothes, electronics, etc,). This equates to higher prices plus more taxes we the consumers will have to pay on the higher prices.
    I don’t have a solution, but I am certain there is a better one out there – perhaps by using the highway taxes currently collected to actually fix the roads as they were intended.

  8. @ TrueCostPricing – I applaud that you can get by without a vehicle. I think it’s awesome that you enjoy being in the hustle and just minutes away from everything.
    I would like to point out that not everyone with a long commute lives in the way you describe.
    We live in a rural community of about 300 people. We are buying a small, 3-bedroom, 2,000 sq ft home on 6 lots. Our house payment is a fourth of what rent would cost in the KC area. I am close to my aging parents. I grew up in this community, all my neighbors know me and my family, and I know my neighbors and their families. My boys can go anywhere in this town and I don’t have to worry about a gang member shooting them or drug dealers trying to hook them. If they do happen to misbehave with some boyish prank – I find out about it before they get home. My car may not be the most economical on the market, but gets close to 30 mpg. As far as mass transit, that only exists in the fall for the community Halloween hay ride and at Christmas when the churches go caroling.
    I wouldn’t trade my drive, cost of living, or piece of mind to live in a metropolitan area. True, we may not have elite schools, a Starbucks just around the corner, or boutiques and malls, but some of us enjoy the slower pace. As an accountant, I ran the numbers – I may live ‘in the sticks’ but economically, it is less expensive for us to remain in our rural home than it would be to move to the ‘big city.’
    All I ask is please keep in mind that not every long-drive commuter lives in a huge house and drives a monstrous gas guzzler.

  9. I’m so sorry to hear about your dad and also about the insensitive behavior of the Duke hospital staff. I hope all goes better…it’s a good sign that your dad is able to maintain a sense of humor.

    About that increased gas tax: I agree that it’s a good idea, as do many economists, both liberal and conservative. There are a lot of what we call “negative externalities” associated with gasoline use and higher gas taxes can collect additional tax revenues while increasing economic efficiency.

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