Keep on truckin’?

The good news is that Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley came forth last week with a plan to help fund an estimated $3.8 billion in much-needed Nevada highway construction — most of it in Southern Nevada — by levying $1.3 billion in taxes on trucks larger than 55,000 pounds over the next years.

There was also some talk about selling 30-year bonds — rather than 20-year debt instruments — in order to stretch out the highway payments.

This is good news not because these proposals themselves are good — in fact, they’re awful — but because this marks the beginning of a serious debate about how to get those vital transportation projects funded, and not a day too soon.

Stretching out bond repayment schedules sounds easy, but in fact it vastly increases the total amount to be paid in interest — by our children and grandchildren, most likely. It also makes little sense to bond projects for longer than the pavement itself is likely to last. That would be like taking out a 12-year loan to buy a car which will probably be on the scrap heap in eight years. How are you going to buy the next one when you’re still paying off one that’s now decorating the used parts graveyard?

Nevada had a version of the weight-distance truck tax Ms. Buckley and friends now propose, but it was tossed out as unconstitutional in 1989 because it was levied only on out-of-state vehicles, a clear affront against the interstate commerce clause.

The current proposal seeks to get around that by taxing Nevada trucks, as well. Leaving aside enforcement problems, this is a bad idea for several reasons, starting with the fact that it would constitute a hidden tax on virtually everything that arrives in Nevada by truck — the kind of regressive tax that falls disproportionately on the poor, who have no choice but to spend the bulk of their income on food and clothing.

Go out for a drive some day, looking for Nevada’s textile mills and commercial vegetable gardens. It’ll be a mighty long drive.

Ms. Buckley tried last week to characterize her proposal as a tax on far-away trucking magnates — an old tactic of the politics of envy. “There are certain industries that are not going to like this,” she said. “But I think we will make a million Nevadans happy if they are not stuck in gridlock. I care more about what they think than what industries think.”

Again, the good news here is the attention to those very real needs of “a million Nevadans.” But the other reason this tax is a bad idea is not merely where the new tax would land, but the false assumption that any new tax is needed, at all.

Nevada currently has a tax receipts surplus in excess of half a billion dollars. That entire tax surplus should be devoted to road construction, for starters.

Then other existing revenue streams could be diverted to these needs, starting with the vast sums the state receives from rental car taxes, gasoline taxes, drivers license fees, and auto registrations. Why divert existing taxes on drivers anywhere else while these highway needs remain unmet? Such “deferred maintenance” is how we got into this spot, in the first place.

And does it make any sense to continue spending huge portions of the state’s healthy room tax revenues on fancy magazine ads inviting more tourists to come here, if once they arrive they’re going to be stuck sitting in gridlock?

The tourists already know we’re here. Honest.

Those and other tax streams could be at least partially diverted to these highway needs.

“I don’t want a repeat of 2003,” warns Assembly Minority leader Garn Mabey, R-Las Vegas, referring to the political shenanigans that the tax-and-spend crowd employed to carry off an end-run around the state constitution when it turned out a small group of courageous Republicans were serious about blocking the biggest tax hike in state history.

Mr. Mabey’s warning could prove prophetic. Gov. Jim Gibbons reiterated Wednesday, “While I have not yet reviewed the proposal … I remain steadfast in my opposition to new or increased taxes.”

Ms. Buckley and the tax-and-spenders claim they want this new tax to fund highways, knowing those projects are vital and popular.

But what they’re really up to parallels the 2003 scheme which saw them spend too much on everything but schools, leaving the school funding bill for last, and then whining that, “Hard-hearted Republicans won’t OK our tax hikes to fund the schools because they hate the children!”

The real reason Ms. Buckley wants this new tax is to fund her all-day kindergarten scheme. She’s just too clever to ask the voters, “There may not be enough money for both; which do you want?”

Mr. Mabey is right that voters want no repeat of 2003. The solution is for Mr. Mabey to lead the way in showing how lawmakers can pick up our existing tax hoses and re-direct their cash flows to fund these highway needs.

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