Opinion: Cut through the spin about gas prices

Gas prices are up and the politics industry in Kansas and nationally is spinning the issue for political gain, often with little regard for the truth.

Per the U.S. Energy Information Association, the average national price of a regular gallon of gasoline has risen 73 cents since January to $3.06 per gallon by July. That price is 15 cents higher than the peak under the Donald Trump Administration but substantially lower than recent historical highs.

Enter politics. Republicans are blaming Democrats. Some Republicans are even falsely implying that President Joe Biden increased gas prices to discourage carbon emissions (He didn’t and presidents don’t control gas prices). And Democrats are blaming Republicans in return.

The bipartisan politics industry — from cable infotainment peddling daily victimhood narratives to partisan spokespeople manufacturing truth-stretched outrage for a living — turns issues like this into blame games for political profit, imprinting politics onto issues where sometimes politics isn’t the whole story.

Most honest economists agree that the economic recovery has driven gas prices higher.

Crude oil is the majority component of gas prices. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that global oil demand dropped 9% in 2020, the biggest decline in decades. Oil producers decreased production, and prices fell. As the economy recovers, oil demand is increasing faster than production can increase, raising oil prices and ultimately gas prices.

Blaming capitalism for gas prices isn’t as sexy, cathartic or simplistic as blaming politicians or parties for our immediate woes. And that kind of banal reality doesn’t keep the politics industry financially afloat. Alas, truth is sometimes dull.

Speaking of truths, one common lie circulating on social media about this issue is that some politician wronged you by raising your gas taxes.

The federal gas tax, which funds highways as a “user fee,” is 18.4 cents a gallon and hasn’t increased since 1993. The Kansas gas tax is 24 cents a gallon and hasn’t increased since 2003 even as other states, red and blue alike, raised theirs. Kansas had the 37th lowest gas tax in America in 2020.

Gas taxes have been in the news, but neither Kansas nor the federal government has raised the tax.

Republican Gov. Mike Parson of Missouri just signed a 12.5 cent per gallon tax increase. But that’s not Kansas.

The Kansas Legislature, with bipartisan and cross-ideological curiosity, entertained three proposals in 2017 to increase the state gas tax 5 to 11 cents to compensate for then-Gov. Sam Brownback raiding highway funds to pay for his tax cuts. Those proposals didn’t pass.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., recently participated in a bipartisan group of senators working on infrastructure funding. Two Republicans in that group have outlined a proposal to raise the federal gas tax, possibly gauging it to inflation, and levy a “vehicle miles traveled” tax that would tax drivers based on mileage driven. Despite some bipartisan curiosity, that Republican tax increase has gone nowhere, and Biden opposes raising the gas tax.

As the economy recovers, the effects of the last year are evident in work mobility, wage and benefit expectations, housing and even gas prices. Those prices rise and will eventually fall. So goes the market. Unfortunately, capitalism in all its complexity doesn’t care about being simple enough to promote honest or informed public dialogue, which leaves citizens vulnerable to opportunistically oversimplified political messaging and the misinformation that often accompanies it.

— Patrick R. Miller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas.


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