Coming soon? Gas tax info, right at the pump

Paying taxes has been pretty low on people’s “fun” list for some time now, and paying them these days can give you a headache. Just ask the last-minute filers scrambling to finish their income tax returns this week. They re-learned an annual lesson: our federal tax system is immensely complicated.

Giving over your hard-earned dollars for taxes may not be fun, but most everyone, short of the anarchists, thinks some level of taxation is necessary. What that level should be is a matter of much debate, but we can find common ground on tax principles. Whatever the mix, our taxes should be broad-based, fairly applied, and as transparent as possible.

Washington’s tax system, which is anchored by a state sales tax, does make tax transparency difficult. Unless you fastidiously keep a running tally of sales taxes, you likely have no idea what you pay to state and local governments each year.

But for each transaction, you know precisely what you paid in sales tax. It’s spelled out for you right at the bottom of the receipt. Your federal Social Security, Medicare, and income taxes are likewise spelled out clearly.

The same can’t be said about filling up your car. The sign as you pull up tells you the price per gallon, but you learn nothing from it about how much of that is tax. The receipt offers no help, either, but it’s information drivers deserve to know.

Rep. Cary Condotta (R-Wenatchee) thinks so too. He offered a worthwhile amendment to the Senate’s transportation budget during House debate last week. Under Condotta’s proposal, state gas pumps will display a sticker showing exactly how much drivers are contributing in state and federal gas taxes for every gallon they buy (for the record, it’s 18.4 cents in federal taxes and 49.4 in state taxes for a gallon of gasoline)

Condotta explained the inspiration behind his simple idea:

“We talk a lot about transparency, and in my travels around the United States I noticed that in some places they have stickers on gas pumps that actually tell people what they’re paying in taxes…

“For next to nothing we can have total transparency with our taxpayers and put some stickers on pumps, and people will know actually who’s taxing on what fuel, and how much they’re being taxed.”

Who could argue against it? No one in the House – Condotta’s amendment passed on 97-0 vote. These stickers might make some people nervous, however. Some advocates for our upgrading our transportation system may think raising awareness of gas taxes will make drivers more gas tax-averse.

I supported the last gas tax package because upgrading our roadways is important for Washington’s economic growth and commuters’ quality of life. We’re unlikely to see another package for some time, but the current package is helping make Washington more economically competitive. That’s a record to stand on, not information to hide from.

Voters always deserve to know as much as possible about the taxes they pay. Credit Condotta with a great idea to, at basically no cost to the state, better inform drivers of what they’re contributing to our road system.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.