Utah Demonstrates How to Sell Tax Hikes for Transportation

Stateline takes an in-depth look at Utah’s success in putting state funds into transportation projects as federal funds have stalled.

Reports Elaine S. Povich:

In a conservative Republican state, how does a governor raise taxes, issue bonds and ask local taxpayers to pay even more for transportation? According to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, you do it by building a coalition of business, industry, churches and educational groups united on one goal: moving people around the state.

“You have to set the table and then you have to deliver,” Herbert, a Republican, said.

“Setting the table” involved at least two years of forging a coalition of interested parties, all of which rely on transportation, to support raising money to build and rebuild Utah’s multifaceted transportation system.

And this year, everyone was called on to “deliver.” In March, Herbert signed a bill passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature that raises the existing 24.5 cents per gallon state gas tax by about 5 cents to pay for state infrastructure projects, despite complaints from some quarters that, because the state has a surplus, it shouldn’t be raising any taxes. The new tax is structured to rise with inflation.

In addition, voters in 17 of 29 Utah counties will be asked in November to approve a 0.25-cent increase in their counties’ sales tax to fund local transportation projects that the state doesn’t pay for, such as city street repairs and local interchanges.

Although nearly every state is struggling to maintain and rebuild its transportation system, Utah is one of only seven states where the legislature this year approved an increase in gas taxes to do it, according to Citizens for Tax Justice, a left-leaning research and advocacy group that focuses on policy. Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and Washington were the others.