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A tax upon us

Dec 9, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

Our conservative state is looking at a 10-cent tax on gasoline, just as it ought to

"Those tax-and-spend liberals are at it again. Now they want to hang another 10-cent tax on every gallon of gasoline we buy in Wyoming."

That's what residents of our state normally could expect to hear in response to a proposal such as the one Gov. Matt Mead made just days ago. He wants the Wyoming Legislature pass a law requiring the 10-cent-per-gallon tax, and the idea has not been condemned.

How things can change.

Not long ago -- not long ago at all -- such a suggestion would have been unthinkable in Wyoming. We were the most crimson of all the red states, opposed to any whisper of increased taxes. We derided the likes of Ted Kennedy from "Taxachusetts," heaping scorn upon anyone who thought increasing taxes ever did anything but harm. The private sector is the only answer, we said. Free competition and unshackled private enterprise from the ball and chain of the two-headed government monster -- taxes and regulation -- is the only way to get anything done. The "entitlement" society was to be avoided. Getting something handed to us by the government weakened us and put us on a downwardly spiraling path to laziness, loss of ambition and -- gulp -- socialism.

In Wyoming, the tax-as-solution approach to a problem was particularly repulsive to state leaders and most of state voters. We were swimming in cash. Our budget surpluses bordered on the embarrassing, except that we were so proud of them. We held ourselves up as the example of fiscal virtue next the other deficit states. Wyoming had figured it out.

But then the national recession struck. Then the price of natural gas, which had accounted for our unprecedented state wealth, plunged. Then the governor told all state agencies and institutions to prepare for 8 percent budget cuts -- minimum. And then our roads, once the infrastructural pride and joy of Wyoming, started getting rutted, cracked and pot-holed.

There's nothing like a crisis to weaken the resistance of the no-new-taxes vanguard. A month before the Wyoming Legislature convenes, our conservative Republican governor calls for a 10-cent increase on a gallon of gasoline, the proceeds of which would be used for building, maintaining and repairing Wyoming's roadways.

All this at the end of a year when the price of gasoline in Wyoming hit a record high, when our state gave 70 percent of its votes to Mitt Romney even as President Obama was being re-elected, and when the same governor said he didn't want to take more money to expand the public health care program for the poor -- Medicaid.

The gasoline tax proposal demonstrates at least two things. First, the roads situation is serious, so serious that most people recognize that it can't be solved through normal budgetary allocations and processes. The money just isn't there.

Second, taxes aren't so bad after all when they can be directed at an unimpeachable target. In Wyoming, good roads are just that. Our major industries -- agriculture, mining, oil and gas, tourism -- all would suffer greatly if the roads were to deteriorate further. And our citizens, who travel great distances for commerce, recreation and education -- won't tolerate crumbling roads, even if it means raising taxes to pay for them.

That, at least, is what these new tax-and-spenders believe. They are wrong if they assume this idea will face no opposition, but they are right to suggest it. It is a tax that would be paid in significant part by non-residents. The benefits of it would be readily and clearly apparent. Partisan gridlock won't be a factor. It would generate employment. It would be "ours," not an imposition from the federal level. And it could be reduced or eliminated if better economic times return.

In Wyoming, those are about the only circumstances in which a new tax would have a chance of approval. Those very circumstances are here, propelled by a troublesome problem that will only get worse with inaction.

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