When the flagman stopped me at a construction site on the highway, I could not help but reflect on the fact that I am helping pay his salary and for this work. The state and national user fees I pay on each gallon of gas I purchase go toward the highway maintenance and construction fund. I remembered that the gas user fees in Montana were increased during the last legislative session to help supplement this fund. Why do I refer to these as user fees rather than taxes? The fees are only collected if you purchase gasoline. The more you use the transportation infrastructure, the more gas you burn and therefore the more you pay in fees. If you do not purchase gas you do not pay the fees.
Because an increase in the gas user fees would hit the bottom line in my business, I was naturally not happy. Being politically active, I reached out to several legislators to express my concern. Most of the legislators expressed disapproval of the increase for ideological reasons. They agreed that our transportation infrastructure was in bad shape but did not want the users to have to pay for repairs and replacement. When I asked them what options we had to pay for these much-needed repairs, they informed me that they were exploring several but could not definitively fill me in. I then decided to contact the legislator who was a sponsor of the gas user fee increase. A sponsor of the bill that would lead to the fee increase, Republican Rep. Frank Garner of Kalispell was open and honest about the reasons he felt the fee increase was needed. We discussed several options he had explored but had discarded.
Garner listened intently, asked good questions and explained to me that his constituents were quite concerned about the deterioration of the existing transportation infrastructure. As a heavy user of the system, I agreed that something had to be done. We discussed other options that would lead to funding for repair and replacement, but none had a chance of passing. I suggested, for instance, a series of toll roads or privatization of some roads, but those would not fly in Montana we agreed.
Garner had put together a group of legislators to get a bill through that would increase the money put aside in the state budget for highways and bridges. He was successful in his endeavor. Now new money is flowing into the transportation infrastructure budget and the repairs on my business vehicles will be decreased because there will be fewer potholes and delays due to an improved system.
Garner has received many personal attacks from some of his Republican colleagues and other ideologues because he put together a coalition of legislators to get his bill passed and approved by the Democratic governor. Some of the legislators who criticize him came home with empty buckets. Their buckets were empty because, like our national Congress, they were not listening to and serving the people they are supposed to represent and not working to resolve issues the citizens of Montana wanted addressed.
We know that the rest of our state government budget will have to be decreased because of a shortfall of revenue and costs that are out of control. We can be thankful that Garner had the foresight and guts to represent all people in the state and set in place a permanent funding mechanism for all users of our transportation infrastructure. The money collected from users of the system cannot be used for other purposes.
I wish all our elected representatives would think of the people of the state rather than their next campaign for office. Thank God there are a few that do go out on a limb for their constituents.
Richard “Grif” Griffin lives in Kalispell.