Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times who began his career covering Beirut, Lebanon, in the 1980s. He now writes about foreign affairs and, occasionally, the domestic scene. The day before the Republican debate on Fox News, Friedman wrote he would like to ask one question of the candidates who made the prime-time segment.
“As part of a 1982 transportation bill, President Ronald Reagan agreed to boost the then 4-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax to 9 cents, saying, ‘When we first built our highways, we paid for them with a gas tax,’ adding, ‘It was a fair concept then, and it is today. Do you believe Reagan was right, and would you agree to raise the gasoline today so we can pay for our highway bill?”
That’s a loaded question because, as anyone who follows Congress knows, the transportation bill is stalled because of a disagreement between members over its funding. Friedman notes the gas tax is now 18.4 cents a gallon. It was last raised in the early 1990s. The Senate passed a version of the bill, but declined to pay for any of it with a gas tax, preferring to sell oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
House Republicans haven’t even gotten that far. Friedman wonders if they will fund it by “selling gold from Fort Knox or paintings from the National Gallery.” In either event, the anti-tax sentiment fostered by some is riding high in Washington with unfortunate consequences for the country.
What does this have to with agriculture? All over the country, worn out roads and bridges are forcing growers to lighten loads on grain trucks or drive miles out of their way to get their crops to the elevator or gin. In places like Iowa, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers proposed increasing the gas tax to pay for repairs, but Gov. Terry Brandstad vetoed their legislation, fearful of annoying the Tea Party faithful.
Driving out of Sao Paulo in Brazil several years ago, our group passed miles of idled trucks waiting to unload their soybeans at the ports. The only reason Brazil hasn’t knocked us out of the soybean business is that, for now, we have better roads. That advantage may not continue.