- - Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The first thought that pops into the mind of Rep. Earl Blumenauer when he sees prices at the gasoline pump is: They ought to be higher. The Oregon Democrat introduced legislation Tuesday to nearly double the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon to 33.4 cents over the next three years. By indexing the amount to inflation, the tax would hike itself automatically each year.

“The gas tax hasn’t been increased since the beginning of the Clinton administration,” says Mr. Blumenauer, referring to the 4.3 cents per gallon hike in 1993. Nothing could be more offensive to a Democrat than a tax that has gone unhiked.

Fifteen cents may not sound significant, but it adds up quickly. The federal fuel excise tax currently raises about $40 billion every year, so an extra 15 cents at the pump represents $30 billion more extracted from taxpayers every year.

Gas prices are trending downward. The national average is $3.27 a gallon, according to AAA, which held out the prospect of a welcome holiday gift in the form of lower prices by the end of the month. “Gas prices could drop [10 to 15 cents] per gallon by the end of the year if supplies build as expected,” AAA said Monday. “The declining price of crude oil and rising gasoline prices have given refineries an incentive to make more gasoline, which should be good for most drivers.”

Democrats are the Grinches who want to steal the Christmas gift of lower gas prices. The ultimate goal is to eliminate affordable fuels and replace them with fantasy sources of power like windmills, solar panels, and in Mr. Blumenaeur’s case, bicycle power.

The proposal also seeks to increase federal spending on infrastructure, and the effort will be sold as though roads and bridges are going to be built with the billions raised. It’ll never happen. The “smart growth,” not-in-my-backyard crowd backing the gas-tax hike doesn’t want to relieve congestion with expanded freeways; they want more light-rail projects, such as the $6 billion Metro line to Washington Dulles International Airport. When a liberal says “transportation,” he’s talking about subsidies for trolleys and buses.

User fees, such as gas taxes, are certainly preferable to broad-based levies. Those who benefit from a service pay for it, but why are motorists in Maine or Mississippi obliged to pay for bike paths in Oregon or light rail in Virginia? It would be preferable for the federal government to reduce the gas tax and relinquish its role in telling states how they need to run their roads and trolleys.

The real Trojan horse is Mr. Blumenauer’s separate bill to replace the gas tax by 2024 with “a more equitable, stable source of funding.” That, of course, refers to installing a black box in everyone’s car that tracks when and where it goes so that a tax may be collected. Such a system wouldn’t be progressive enough, so it would have to be tweaked in a way that charges fuel-sipping Toyota Prius drivers less and gas-guzzling SUV drivers more.

This complicated, privacy-invading scheme would then wind up doing precisely what the gasoline tax already does: The more one drives, the more one pays. Efficient vehicles also pay less. The difference is, the gas tax is so simple that it doesn’t need an army of bureaucrats to administer the complicated regulations that would be needed.

President Reagan neatly summarized what’s going on. “If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.”