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Editor’s Note: Gas taxes sound like an easy fix, but government will have to work harder than that

Editor’s Note is a regular column by Josh Durso. He serves as News Director of Have a question, comment, or idea for future story? Send it to [email protected].

Over the last two weeks there have been a slew of news stories about various bills involving the state’s ambitious carbon emission goals. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made it clear he wants to make significant progress over the next 10-15 years in the battle against climate change. However, there are equally significant questions about how the state, or our country for that matter, can get to those ambitious goals.

There was a lot of chatter on both sides of the political divide when Democrats introduced a bill to apply an increased tax to gasoline and natural gas. An assessment of that tax shows an increase in cost of a gallon of gasoline by approximately 55 cents. Similarly, the annual cost to heat a home with natural gas would increase by 25-26%. The latter could actually be the more difficult for families to contend with as heating costs in Upstate New York could be viewed as more essential. Those who commute to work will disagree.

Setting all of that aside, though, I wonder “What’s our real intent here?”

Advocates for carbon taxes say it’s the most-effective way to combat usage. Some have also argued that this will spur the kind of mainstream innovation that will continue to make alternatives a reality for more people. That said, even Democrats have cautioned their peers about a tax that is this aggressive- pointing out that it could strain middle class and lower-income households at an already difficult time. Not to be outdone- advocates argue, yet again, that intense action is necessary to combat climate change- and the cost is already being passed indirectly onto low- and middle- income earners.

DiSanto Propane (Billboard)

While that might be the case- it’s difficult to quantify- and most-definitely a difficult concept for the average person to wrap their head around. Getting back to the aforementioned question- the intent appears to be to drive down use of traditional vehicles and reliance on natural gas. But if that’s the desired outcome- there are broader, less-costly ways to achieve it.

It’s become an easy fallback option to tout the divide between Democrats and Republicans as a reason for gridlock- or lack of broad, systemic change in these categories. So perhaps, a tax, in an evenly-split governing body is the best case scenario for creating meaningful change on this front. But that’s not the dynamic at all in New York State politics. Democrats control every major pillar of government- and should have no trouble at all finding the votes for policy that strikes at the root of systemic issues.

Here’s something to remember, though: It’s a lot easier to slap a tax on something- than it is to address the various reasons why we are in this climate crisis- if we’re going to call it that. A tax is not by itself a significant policy step. It’s lazy at best- and falls significantly short of creating real change- because those with means will find a way around it.

If electric vehicles were widely affordable, if the median salary in most counties across the Finger Lakes were greater than $25,000 or $30,000, if the region didn’t have a non-existent public transportation system- whether it look like what cities have or be something more nimble like the rideshare space, then gasoline consumption would be less.

A gas tax does nothing aside from incentivizing those who can afford a $40,000 or $50,000 electric vehicle to purchase one- while production is hardly ready for that level of mainstream adoption. Look at the housing market: There isn’t enough supply- and prices are skyrocketing.

Pushing more people with means to electric vehicles immediately will not drive down the price, or create a better scenario for low- or middle- income earners. In fact, it will create a worse one coupled with a tax that causes an immediate increase to the always volatile price of gasoline.

The lack of readiness is just one-of-many reasons why a gas tax isn’t the answer. There are others- like the fact that the tourism-driven economy in the Finger Lakes and other parts of Upstate New York- who don’t have the benefit of dense, urban population- are waiting for their recovery. A poorly timed tax could derail whatever rebounding success regions like the Finger Lakes, Central New York, or Southern Tier could see over the next few years.

But here’s my real takeaway from this issue: Climate change wasn’t a fight intended to be waged by individual states. The federal government should be stepping up in a meaningful way- incentivizing the major players in the economy to move the needle in the right direction. It’s undeniable that electric vehicles are the way of the future. That said, the way we get there is a far-more nuanced path than any politician has put forward to date.

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