Don’t let the president pile up more debt for roads

May 3, 2019

President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats agreed this week to push for $2 trillion in spending on roads, bridges, broadband and water systems.

America’s infrastructure definitely needs fixing and more technology. But how will our leaders in Washington pay for their “big and bold” plan?

They have no idea.

Democrats are punting that question to the Republican president, who has shown little interest in paying for his expensive priorities with real money. That includes the military, tax cuts and a wall at the Mexican border. Instead, his administration has been racking up record debt.

The simplest way to pay for better roads is to raise the federal gas tax of 18.3 cents per gallon. It hasn’t gone up since 1993, despite inflation and more fuel-efficient vehicles, whose drivers have been paying less into federal coffers over time.

Trump expressed support for a higher gas tax a year ago. But when asked about raising it this week to help cover the $2 trillion price tag of the latest infrastructure plan, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway seemed to dismiss the idea, telling the Associated Press, “This is a guy who lowers taxes.”

It’s true Trump cut income taxes for corporations and many Americans last year. But in doing so, he also contributed to an annual federal budget deficit that increased $113 billion to $779 billion for 2018. And since he took office two years ago, the total national debt has climbed $2 trillion to $22 trillion.

So Conway could have just as accurately said, “This is a guy who piles up debt,” sticking our children and grandchildren with the bill.

Wisconsin is suffering from bad roads, which are rated among the worst in the nation. And just like Washington, Wisconsin has failed to raise its gas tax or create other revenue to keep pace with what it is spending.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is proposing a more responsible path by including an 8 cent-per-gallon increase in the state gas tax of 32.9 cents. Republicans who run the state Legislature should support raising more revenue if they want to spend more on roads and bridges. They can’t have it both ways without running up hundreds of millions more in debt.

Similarly, President Donald Trump should propose an increase in the federal gas tax as part of any funding mechanism to cover the cost of major roads and other projects across the country. Some of those projects will improve roads in Wisconsin, so our state’s congressional delegation should offer the president bipartisan support.

Nobody likes paying higher taxes. But nobody likes rumbling over rough roads and hitting potholes, either. The gas tax, in the short term, is the easiest solution. And U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y. — a Trump ally — just proposed a higher federal gas tax to help pay for the $2 trillion infrastructure plan this week. Collins also is seeking a higher airline fee.

Trump has abandoned a previous White House idea to leverage mostly private investment for roads, calling it “so stupid.” But what’s really dumb — and unfair to future generations of Americans — is to continue borrowing to get by.