Do Voters Back White House Plan For Highway Funding? Don’t Be So Sure

Isaiah J. Poole

An outfit called Morning Consult created a minor ripple this week with a news story headlined “Voters Back White House Plan for Highway Funding.” But, like all stories based on polls, it pays to know how the pollster asked the question. And in this case, if the goal was to determine if voters back “the White House plan” for highway funding, the pollsters didn’t ask the right question.

That issue takes on major importance starting today as Congress returns from recess and wrestles with an end-of-the-month deadline for authorizing the continuation of the federal surface transportation program. The program has been funded primarily by a federal tax on gasoline, but in recent years that tax has had to be supplemented with general fund appropriations. The question before Congress is how to cover the cost of more general fund appropriations if lawmakers rule out raising the gasoline tax.

What the Morning Consult’s pollsters asked is if it was “a good idea or a bad idea” to “tax U.S. overseas profits to fund the highway account.” Sixty-four percent called that a “good idea,” 21 percent said it was a “bad idea,” with 15 percent giving a “don’t know/no opinion.” That majority holds strong across party, gender, demographic and ideological lines – even 56 percent of self-described conservatives approve that approach.

Bottom line, there is a clear mandate for a progressive approach to coming up with the money we need to improve our transportation network for the 21st century: Ask the corporations that profit highly from our shared infrastructure, but engage in various schemes to move profits from their U.S. sales overseas to avoid taxation, to end their tax evasion and pay their fair share.

And, to be fair, that is the basic idea behind the White House plan.

But a poll that sought to measure the support of what President Obama has actually proposed would have included the important detail that those overseas profits would be taxed at a fraction of what the corporations actually owe – a 14 percent rate rather than the top corporate rate of 35 percent. That rate essentially rewards companies that engineered schemes to avoid paying taxes by laundering U.S. sales through overseas subsidiaries that are little more than a post office box. Yes, 14 percent is more than zero, but it is still less than the tax rates paid by most single filers.

If the question was if it was a good idea to “tax overseas profits at a rate lower than the rate paid by most individual taxpayers to fund the highway account,” it’s unlikely that 62 percent of respondents would agree. How do we know? The polls we’ve been tracking on consistently show that between 65 and 70 percent of voters believe corporations pay too little in taxes.

Yet, it turns out that the White House proposal for the highway fund is the boldest of the bids for taxing overseas profits. A proposal by Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) would set the corporate tax rate at a rock-bottom 8.75 percent.

These percentages matter in the larger debate over corporate tax reform. Conservatives want to substantially lower the overall corporate tax rate, and if the debate over overseas tax havens sets the bar low, that means any future tax code overhaul is destined to dramatically decrease even more the share of taxes paid by the corporate sector, which is already at a record low – to 10 percent of total revenues, or just 1.6 percent of gross domestic product. And that tax overhaul would likely continue to give an advantage to corporations that shelter their profits overseas.

Whether the American public wants that outcome would be a good question for a future poll.

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