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New Report Examines the Media’s Role in the Gas Tax Debate

University of Vermont Transportation Research Center)

success of state-level plans to increase gas taxes is tied to the
media's portrayal of the proposals in question, with narratives tied to
"crumbling infrastructure" and "economic progress" showing more success
than those emphasizing long-term transportation budget gaps, according
to a new report released by the University of Vermont's Transportation
Research Center (TRC).

The TRC report examined six states where lawmakers debated raising
gas taxes to close infrastructure budget gaps between 2006 and 2009.
Three of the states ultimately approved gas tax increases (Oregon,
Minnesota, and Vermont) -- two of them over the opposition of the
governor, as seen in the third column of the above chart -- and three of
the state (Massachusetts, Idaho, and New Hampshire) nixed the proposed
tax increases.

While acknowledging that "there are many possible explanations for
the success and failure of gasoline tax increases at the state level,"
TRC researcher Richard Watts attempted to categorize the "frames" used
to depict the proposals in local media as well as the Associated Press
wire service.

Watts broke down the most popular media narratives by whether they
emphasized arguments made by supporters or opponents of the proposed tax
hikes. The most common so-called "pro frames" focused on each state's
decaying infrastructure, which would be in line for a boost thanks to
new gas tax revenues; the economic upside of improving travel times and
creating jobs by pursuing more gas tax-funded repair projects; and the
long-term benefits of solving persistent budget crises by raising fuel

Watts also marked off three frequently used "anti frames": broad
opposition to tax increases of any kind; a perceived public preference
for cutting other government spending before resorting to raising taxes;
and the economic downside of raising fuel charges during a recession.

The report did not show an across-the-board correlation between
positive portrayals of higher gas taxes and the ultimate passage of
state-level proposals to that effect. As seen in the above chart, media
coverage in five out of the six states studied featured a majority of
"pro frames," yet two of those states failed to act on gas tax

But the nature of the media narratives used did appear to have an
effect on the success of state-level tax increases. From Watts' report:

In Vermont and Minnesota, crumbling infrastructurecomprised the majority of the pro-gas tax frames. This is a powerfulframe that carries images of collapsing bridges, aging and deteriorating roadways, threats to physical health and a system in dire jeopardy. ...

In Massachusetts and Idaho the dominant pro-gas tax frame waslong-term solution – displayed about 75 percent of total pro-gas taxframes. This frame emphasized funding and financial mechanisms and lacks the imagery of crumbling infrastructure. In both states the debate inthe news discourse became about transportation system funding, not thedeteriorating system.

Another wild card, according to Watts' research, was the "media
standing" of the public figures making pro- or anti-gas tax arguments.
In Massachusetts, for example, he found insufficient data to explain the
source of the media's emphasis on the more wonkish "long-term solution"
frame -- whether it was also the dominant narrative of Gov. Deval
Patrick (D), a tax-hike supporter, or whether it dominated the debate
for other reasons.

Nonetheless, the report could provide food for thought for House
transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN), as his
party's resistance
to a federal gas tax increase continues to force
a challenging search for alternative transport financing tactics.

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