The Gas Tax Hike Passed. Now What?

IF YOU WANT TO HOLD TRANSPORTATION POLICYMAKERS ACCOUNTABLE, HERE’S HOW.

After three years of effort, lawmakers raised the gas tax (and a host of related taxes and fees). In the process they slightly altered the structure of the Department of Transportation, but the changes don’t amount to the kind of restructuring that would ensure accountability: the new law doesn’t abolish the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) – which, thanks to last year’s Act 275 and this year’s gas tax bill, has much more revenue to spend – and the DOT is still controlled by legislative appointees (whom citizens can’t vote for or against) rather than the governor (whom they can).

Even so, the incremental changes lawmakers have been obliged to impose on the transportation system over the last two years, though they hardly amount to anything that could be called reform, may allow the governor – as well as citizens – to effect some significant changes on the transportation funding system.

Here’s a look at what the system’s governance structure looks like now – and what you can do to hold it accountable.

How is the new law different?

Act 275 changed the governance of the Department of Transportation in a few small but significant ways.

First, it eliminates the Joint Transportation Review Committee (JTRC), the ten-member board of legislators and legislative appointees that screens and approves candidates for the DOT commission. Commissioners will now be chosen by the governor, but the governor’s appointees must be approved by the legislative delegations of each of the seven districts from which the appointees are chosen. The two at-large candidates will be approved by both houses of the General Assembly.

Second, the new law makes the commissioners at-will gubernatorial appointments. In other words, the governor can fire commissioners.

What does that mean for the governor?

The governor’s power to fire commissioners makes it possible for the state’s chief executive to exercise influence over the transportation system, but it also makes it possible for him to duck responsibility for it. He can influence – but he’s not accountable for the outcome, so in a practical sense he doesn’t have to take the blame when things go wrong.

And even if the governor opts to force changes at DOT, the fact that delegations must approve his choice of commissioner rather than the full Senate makes it easier for legislative leaders to deny the governor’s nominees with little or no political risk. Why? Because it’s practically very difficult for citizens to hold a delegation accountable.

What does that mean for citizens?

Since the governor doesn’t have full responsibility for the road system, and since citizens therefore can’t hold the governor directly accountable for roads, they will still have to monitor a diffuse and confusing system as best they can. Here are the leverage points:

(1) Citizens can demand open meetings for the approval of DOT commissioners. Often when delegations approve gubernatorial appointments, these votes take place well outside the public view. That doesn’t have to happen.

(2) Citizens can insist that DOT commissioners have no financial ties to the transportation industry. Clearly, any DOT commissioner should know something about transportation policy, but more than one member of the current commission draws direct financial benefits from work in the transportation industry, with obvious implications for commission policies.

(3) Citizens can monitor hearings of the DOT commission and watch particularly for commissioners diverting money from maintenance to debt service, which will likely mean STIB bonds. A brief explanation: The new law creates an “Infrastructure Maintenance Trust Fund” that’s supposedly designed to ensure that money goes to repair and maintenance, not to unnecessary and costly new projects in politically influential counties. But technical wording of the law says the money can be spent on “repairs, maintenance, and improvements to the existing transportation system” (emphasis added). That could mean anything. If the commission does try to divert money from the Trust Fund to debt service, that vote will have to take place openly.

(4) Citizens can contact their DOT commissioners to inquire about the repair of egregiously damaged roads and bridges.

(5) As of 2016, the DOT commission must approve STIB projects, which by definition would not be for road repair and maintenance. These votes, too, would take place in open session.

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