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Transport and the Tea Party: How Conservatives Talk About the Gas Tax

The passage of health care legislation this week, while elating
Democrats, has proven an equally potent motivator for conservatives
advocates of states' rights. Appearing on Sean Hannity's Fox News show
last night, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) was asked about the viability of the
legal challenge to the health bill filed
14 mostly conservative attorneys general.

jim_demint_1.jpgSen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) (Photo: The
44 Diaries

DeMint's reply included an interesting shout-out to transportation
policy (emphasis mine):

[I]n fact, I think the states may be our only hope to stop this rampage of government takeovers at the federal level. If we hadmore states push back not only on health care, but on education, opening up their own energy supplies, on getting back their owntransportation dollars, there are many things this federalgovernment is doing that are outside the realm of the enumerated powersof the constitution.

That casual reference to state "transportation dollars" masks a
long-simmering debate over the federal gas tax. For 17 years, Congress
has declined to raise the tax (now 18.3 cents per gallon) or index it to
inflation, despite polling that
most of the public already thinks the latter move is
settled law.

But lawmakers have shown an indefatigable will to fight over the
dwindling gas tax revenues that the government does collect.
Conservatives often push for states to get the maximum amount of their
gas-tax dollars directed back home in the form of guaranteed highway
spending -- a boon to states with more drivers and newer roads, but a
setback for states with older infrastructure and denser cities that
diminish the need for auto use.

This conflict is known as the "donor-donee" issue. It does not
split states along near ideological lines: California is the federal
road program's No. 1 "donor," with "donee" states concentrated in the
northeast and mountain west, according
the lobbying group Coalition for Donor State Equity.

Nonetheless, DeMint's invocation of transportation funding as a
battleground for states'-rights advocates reflects an active rhetorical
current on the right.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), during her unsuccessful
gubernatorial bid last year, touted
a proposal
to let states withdraw entirely from the federal
transportation system and keep their own gas-tax money within their
borders. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) helped
the 2005 federal transport bill until "donor" states were
guaranteed a higher rate of return on their gas taxes -- despite data showing
that when federal taxes beyond transportation are considered, most of
the biggest "donor" states hail from the northeast.

As the GOP, increasingly influenced by the tea-party movement,
continues to press constitutional criticisms of federal policy, look for
transportation to rear its head more often.

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