A bill has been introduced in the Minnesota House of Representatives (HF 389) that would forbid any public academic institution in Minnesota from using state funds or resources to “study, test, demonstrate, evaluate or promote a potential mileage-based user fee.” Since these academic institutions all receive some state funding, the effect of the provision would be to ban them from studying, debating or discussing an important public-policy issue. More to the point, this provision would stifle public debate and threaten the core value of academic freedom.

 

First, some quick background. A mileage-based user fee, sometimes called a road user charge, would charge drivers based on the number of miles they have driven, rather than the number of gallons of gasoline they use.

This approach is being seriously studied by many states across the nation for a very good reason: As the nation’s vehicle fleet becomes more fuel-efficient, and more apt to be using non-gasoline energy sources, the revenue raised by the gas tax decreases. When less gas tax revenue is raised, we don’t have enough money to keep roads and bridges safe and efficient. When that happens, people and economies suffer. And the system becomes more inequitable, as some drivers don’t pay their fair share of road costs based on their use of the road system.

For this reason, California, Oregon and Washington are all developing large-scale pilots to test mileage-based fees on the roads. Many other states are launching studies to explore these fees as a long-term alternative to replace the gas tax.

Regardless of what you may think about mileage-based user fees, any supporter of free and open societies ought to be concerned about politicians dictating what institutions of higher learning may or may not “study, test, demonstrate, evaluate or promote.” If such censorship is allowed for this issue, what’s to stop politicians from censoring debate and study associated with other public-policy issues?

If mileage-based fees are ever used in Minnesota — still a very big “if” — there are dozens of complex policy, technological and logistical issues that would need to be navigated. The University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs frequently researches these kinds of issues, brings experts in to supply information and insights, and convenes key leaders in the community for a vigorous discussion of these issues. Vetting those issues helps improve the ultimate decision about whether or not to pursue the policy, and how to shape the policy.

Over the years, the Humphrey School has convened countless groups of citizens, experts and leaders to discuss and study a variety of public-policy issues, including mileage-based user fees. That is a core function that a “school of public affairs” does for a community. Sometimes I agree with the recommendations that come out of such efforts, and sometimes I disagree. But even when I disagree, I very much value the learning that happens.

I can certainly understand that there are legislators and interest groups who are against replacing the gas tax with a mileage-based fee. But I can’t understand how any supporter of informed decisionmaking would oppose this kind of thoughtful deliberation and evaluation.

 

Lee Munnich is a senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.