The truth about the Trust advertising campaign from David Averill of the Tulsa World.
Road lobby would detour education funding
There is no doubt that Oklahoma's highways and bridges are bad and that the state faces a herculean task bringing them up to snuff.
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation faces a construction and maintenance project backlog estimated at $9 billion to $12 billion. Among those projects are more than 1,000 bridges that are outdated or load-restricted and in need of replacement.
While lawmakers and governors have infused some serious dollars into the system in the past few years, ODOT's current funding level is still only 12 percent higher than it was in 1985, which doesn't even come close to keeping up with inflation. Since 1985 the Consumer Price Index has increased 70 percent and the average daily vehicle miles driven in the state has increased by 50 percent.
That said, however, it is a shame that an advocacy group formed to lobby the Legislature for increased highway funding has conducted an advertising and public relations campaign that can be described most generously as misleading.
Among other things, the group's media blitz ignores or downplays the fact that if legislation it supports were passed -- a bill to earmark most motor vehicle fees for ODOT -- it would take money away from public education.
A group called the TRUST Coalition (Transportation Revenues Used Strictly for Transportation) has been pushing for the earmarking of motor vehicle, or license tag, fees for highway and bridge maintenance and construction. The group's membership includes road contractors who stand to benefit from increased construction.
The group's TV ads and press releases have constantly sounded the theme that motor vehicle fees are "road taxes" or highway user fees and that they are being "diverted" to other purposes. Its executive director has said that as a result of this so-called diversion, "We're paying for good roads, we're just not getting them."
The coalition's pitch is not true.
License tag fees are not and never were intended to be road taxes or highway user fees. They are not being diverted from road building and therefore can't be restored to that purpose. The fees, which amounted to nearly $622 million in 2007, are collected in lieu of personal property tax on cars, trucks and boats.
By law, 36 percent of motor vehicle fees go directly to local school districts. The coalition's ads and press releases lump those revenues among "non-highway" uses of the tag fee collections, never mentioning the words "school" or "education."
In addition to the 36 percent for local schools, about 45 percent goes to the state's general revenue fund and about 16 percent goes to various county and municipal highway and bridge funds. A dab also goes to the law enforcement officers retirement fund.
The coalition's proposed legislation, House Bill 3342, would not take away the 36 percent of motor vehicle fees that go directly to local school districts. The group's concern is the 45 percent that goes to the general fund. It claims that earmarking part or all of those revenues for roads and bridges would not harm education.
The no-harm claim is not true.
While education is woefully under-funded in Oklahoma it still is a big item in the state budget. About 36 percent of the budget each year goes for common schools (grades K-12). When higher education and vo-tech are added, total education funding approaches 60 percent of the budget.
That means that for every $100 that is diverted from the general fund and earmarked for another purpose, $60 is no longer available for common, higher and vo-tech education.
When a pie is re-cut to give someone (let's say transportation) a bigger slice, it means that someone else (schools) will get a smaller slice.
The roads coalition is not saying that it favors taking away money from education and giving it to highways. But that would be the result if its proposed bill became law. And that is especially true as the state faces standstill budgets, or worse, in the coming years.
Highway maintenance and construction are in desperate straits. Oklahomans say they want better roads but they don't want to pay for them. A modest gasoline tax increase put to voters a couple of years ago was resoundingly defeated. A bill passed by the Legislature promised $50 million a year in new money for highways but it was keyed to state revenue growth which isn't happening. Federal transportation matching money is being left on the table.
But shame on the TRUST Coalition for casting a covetous eye on a public education system that already is below the national average in per-pupil spending and whose teachers are among the nation's lowest-paid. And shame on it for pretending that that's not what it is doing.