Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Genius of the Voluntary Gas Tax

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.
Margaret Mead

The average price for a gallon of gasoline in the United States has risen from $2.72 a year ago to $3.56 today. Our national gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon--low compared to European taxes--is factored into that price (most states have additional taxes added: 68.9 cents per gallon in CA). Societies levy this excise tax for two basic reasons: to raise revenue to build, maintain and repair national highways and to compensate for external costs like pollution and ozone depletion that are hidden in the low prices of American gasoline. Economists, of course, debate how effective gas taxes are at both funding projects and limiting the amount of carbon spewed into our air.

Some microsocieties, even smaller than counties and cities, are creatively taking matters into their own hands with the ultimate economic weapon: the voluntary gas tax. That's right, a community of more than 3 dozen in Harrisonburg, Virginia have committed themselves for over a decade to tax their gasoline to raise consciousness about oil addiction and raise revenue that supports projects ranging from earthquake survivors in Pakistan to local residents for heating bills. Indeed, as they say in Harrisburg, this is "the craziest tax you've never heard of!" But like leaven in the loaf, the VGT has spread to funky outposts like Goshen, Indiana and Davis, California, critically transforming lifestyles while creatively funding those in need.

We got an opportunity to sit-down and e-chat with Earl Martin, one of these beautifully insane self-taxers from Harrisonburg.

EY: When did your community start the voluntary gas tax and what was the initial response from within the community?

EM: We think we started in the year 2000. A community of folks who lived here in our house would often discuss the fact that we were paying but a fraction of the real cost of gasoline. Finally, we said to each other: Let's do something about this. Let's tax ourselves for the use of gasoline. So we started and invited other friends to join us. Initially, the larger community here in Harrisonburg hardly knew that we were doing this. But as we had opportunity to talk with more people about it, we discovered a good amount of curiosity, some incredulity, and quite a bit of support and encouragement.

EY: What are the theological, political and/or philosophical convictions that form the foundation for your gas tax?

EM: I'm not sure that we ever spelled that out clearly, but I believe there is a strong sense of being fair to our planet and finding a sustainable way to live that undergirds our initiative. Theologically, most of us might feel that God loves all of creation and all the creatures in that creation. Hence, for us to be kind to creation, and especially for us to be kind to our children and grandchildren and all who come after us, it is imperative that we be much more careful in how we consume earth's resources.

Most of us are also committed to nonviolent peacebuilding. We believe that the drive of the US to acquire cheap oil has often caused our country to wage war against others.

EY: How is the tax revenue collected?

EM: We have gatherings twice a year. Potlucks in someone's home. At that time we come, having calculated that mount of gasoline we used in the previous six months. (Many folks keep their credit card receipts and add up the gallons. Others note their car's odometer differential and divided by the miles per gallon of their vehicle.) Most of us pay 50 cents/gallon for the gas we consume. Some have contributed at least symbolic amounts for their air travel, but we've not done much with that or with heating fuel.

EY: How does the community make decisions about how to use the tax revenue?

EM: At our bi-annual gatherings, we come with suggestions for how to use the funds. After we've computed how many funds we have available, we discuss the various ideas folks have for disbursal. We have contributed heavily toward local projects, e.g., promoting bike paths and increased bicycle use, but also often give to national and international projects. A project a few years ago was to give $500 to the local Habitat for Humanity chapter for some energy-saving feature in their construction. With that money they sent their project manager to a seminar on solar hot water heaters. They tried such a heater on their next house, and liked it so much, they've installed them on all subsequent houses.

EY: Have you seen significant lifestyle changes come about as a result of the gas tax?

EM: Hard to say. I do think that most of us think more carefully now on whether or not to make a road trip in a car. Lots of our group use bicycle as primary form of transportation. A few do not own cars. But some do use vehicles in employment, like my carpentry work van, and still do consume considerable amounts of fuel.

EY: What piece of advice would you give to a community first starting a voluntary gas tax?

EM: Get ready to have a good time. One of the fun things has been to discover that the people who are ready, even enthusiastic, to charge themselves a voluntary tax are probably not the stingiest or curmudgeonly folks in town. So it's a fun bunch of folks to be working with. From there on, the sky's the limit: leverage that money to cultivate creative things in your community and beyond. Be as evangelistic (or not) about the venture with your neighborhood and the world as you want to be. Share your notes with us and we'll share with you. If you get something going, we'd love to add a link to your group on the web site.

*Earl and the folks of VGT Harrisonburg can be reached at voluntarygastax@gmail.com.

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