What is conservative?

A Texas Tribune interview with Senator John Carona reminded me of the questions I’ve been asking as I work on the revised fiscal policy section of the book.

[TribLive: Carona on Perry’s “Disrespectful” Pledge]

It seems to me that Texas has three choices on roads (for example):

  1. Stop building/expanding Texas roads.
  2. Raise taxes to build more roads.
  3. Allow private companies to build toll roads.

Option one does not seem practical given the state’s population growth. Failure to stay up with the growing demands on Texas roadways undermines economic growth as workers and products spend more time stuck in traffic. Senator Carona is discussing the difference between option two and three. He is advocating raising the state gasoline tax which has not been increased in 20 years. Raising taxes is generally not a good thing to conservatives. However, Carona’s argument is that it is actually more fiscally responsible to raise taxes than it is to allow private companies to charge Texans to drive on roads. His research suggests that the final cost to Texans is lower if we use taxes dollars to fund road projects rather than paying for roads through taxes. There are some problems with his argument, but the basic point has to be addressed.

It’s an interesting question. When we privatize roads we are passing tax collection off to private firms. Asking someone from the private sector doesn’t change the fact that the cost results from government decisions and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t add all those tolls to the government’s tab.

Our policy debates are driven by the political fears of our candidates. The policy world is much more complicated and nuanced than the noisy claims we hear during elections. It is much easier for most citizens to notice a tax increase than to see the rising number of toll road popping up around the state. The word “tax” is (for the moment, at least) more problematic for politicians than “toll.”

So, Corona makes a valid point. The question is: who else is brave enough to raise it?

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