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What if gas tax formula were a model for state government?

RALEIGH — North Carolina’s gas tax went up the other day.

The 2.5 cents per gallon increase happened not because state legislators or Gov. Beverly Perdue raised the tax. No, this particular tax goes up or down based on the wholesale price of gasoline.

When the cost of gasoline is up in any six-month period, the tax rises with it. When gas prices drop, the tax drops as well.

To consumers, the system may sound a bit wacky. Why hit us harder in the pocketbook at the same time we’re already being hit hard, right? There is logic behind the system, though.

When the price of gasoline increases, so does the price of road building. Petroleum is a key component of asphalt. And the gas tax is a dedicated tax, going solely for road construction, maintenance and other transportation-related costs.

Even so, the handwringing began pretty quickly as the July 1 increase approached.

Some legislators said no consensus existed to cap the tax. Others spoke about capping it later in the summer.

Perhaps they are looking at it wrong.

Why couldn’t the gas tax be a model for the rest of state government? Creating a few more formulas might just allow the state to do away with legislature and governor.

Who needs political decision-makers when you’ve got science and math to figure this stuff out?

So, when overall tax collections dip slightly, first sin taxes — on cigarettes and alcohol — could rise. If state revenue dropped even more, income taxes on the wealthy could jump by a percentage or two. Under more dire circumstances, the sales tax could rise by a penny.

When the economy improves and tax collections jump, the formula would call for tax rates to decline.

Our new system of government should garner bipartisan support. After all, plenty of Republicans favor a taxpayer bill of rights that would limit government spending based on formulaic considerations of population growth and inflation.

To sweeten the political pot, formulas could be created tying state employee pay raises to performance. Teachers would only receive raises if students improved their performance on a set of national tests. Prison guards would get pay bumps if no prisoners escaped and if order prevailed. Highway Patrol troopers would see their pay increase if, collectively, they could avoid an embarrassing public incident for six months.

Park and museum budgets, and expansions or contractions, could be tied to formulas measuring their use. The number of environmental regulators and regulations could be based on the number of environmental laws broken in the previous year, giving the regulated quite an incentive to not pollute.

This new formula-based state government would bring certainty to the governed and tamp down the political considerations affecting current decision-making.

But the real payoff for the governed would come election time.

Eliminating or substantially reducing the number of political officeholders responsible for these decisions would mean not having to suffer all that hot air that fills the atmosphere every two years.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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