Saturday, April 29, 2006

Conservation, Not Legislation

Nothing brings out the stupids in lawmakers more than runaway gas prices. I've heard so many ill-conceived proposals in the past week that I can't keep track of all of them. Let's just hope a majority of legislators have some common sense and don't actually pass these laws. That's a lot to ask these days.

Where did this gas rebate plan come from? The Republicans, who supposedly don't approve of government handouts, want to give $100 rebates to taxpayers to help pay for their gas? The same people who wanted to cut everything from student loans to healthcare for the poor think it's in our national interest to compensate motorists for the rising cost of a dwindling resource. What the hell is that? And where would all that money come from? The budget surplus? Oops, there isn't one. The whole point of the Republican proposal is just to sneak in a measure to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which simply does not have enough oil to make a difference anyway. It's all political posturing for the November elections -- Democrats who oppose it will be portrayed as "cheating hard-working Americans" out of gas price relief offered so generously by the Republicans.

The dumbest idea (drum roll, please) has to be suspending state or federal gas taxes. This is the lowest sort of pandering there is. Lawmakers (including Democrats in Congress and in Pennsylvania) see the November election looming and figure they will win if they can push a law like this through the system. Said lawmakers apparently don't realize that gas taxes do not exist simply to make consumers pay more; those funds are used to build and maintain roads. If a tax is suspended for only a month, that's an 8.3 percent cut in funding for the year. To make matters worse, many are calling for two or more months. A lot of state governments are barely in the black these days (Pennsylvania is projecting a surplus, but President Bush can show you how easily that can disappear), and of course the federal government has overspent into a record deficit. If that money doesn't come from gas taxes, there is nowhere else to get it. And it isn't as if our highway infrastructure is in such great condition that we should defer maintenance.

And what happens if gas prices don't go down? Will there be another rebate? Will gas taxes be suspended again? Eventually we'll all have to drive SUVs because the roads will deteriorate too much to drive regular automobiles on them. There is one surefire solution to rising gas costs -- drive less. Nine out of ten Americans will probably say, "I can't." And at least eight of those nine will be liars:
  • "I have to drive Precious to school!" Why can't she ride the bus?
  • "Johnny has to go to soccer practice!" So does the kid down the street. Why can't you split the driving with his parents?
  • "I have to get to work!" Maybe you should move closer. Barring that, assuming public transportation isn't available, why don't you carpool?
  • "I have to get a loaf of bread!" Why didn't you pick one up on the way home from work? (My neighbors come and go five times or more every Saturday. Don't tell me they couldn't combine some trips.)
I haven't even mentioned walking, bicycling, or going inside instead of idling in the drive-through line. All of these lifestyle changes make a hell of a lot more sense than suspending fuel taxes or deepening our deficit to hand out gas rebates.

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