By Jaime Rall

Life as an NCSL policy analyst isn’t always predictable. Sometimes a state policy issue that has seen little recent public interest suddenly heats up, and the phone starts ringing off the hook with requests for more details—not only from legislators and legislative staff, who were likely watching the issue all along, but also from the media and other members of the public.

Jaime Rall, NCSL Policy Analyst

As a representative of NCSL, my job is to consistently provide a neutral, bipartisan, accurate and trustworthy point of view. The media cites NCSL more than 60 times each week, usually to fact-check and to gain a 50-state perspective. (Want to play a fun game? Next time you’re in a doctor’s office with back issues of national news publications like Time and Newsweek, try looking for the NCSL data. I’ve never failed yet.) Often, the media also turns to us for a neutral perspective on controversial topics where measured voices may be hard to find.

I cover a range of transportation policy topics for NCSL, including transportation funding, and this year’s sessions saw a big spike of related legislative activity. Not only did five states enact bills likely to raise their overall gas taxes—which no state had done since 2009—but Oregon also just created the nation’s first large-scale voluntary program to charge drivers a fee based on the number of miles they drive rather than the gallons of gas they buy.

Mileage-based fees could unlink transportation funding from fuel consumption, an attractive possibility in an age of plug-in cars and fast-rising fuel efficiency, and several states have studied the option. But because some approaches could use GPS-based technologies to track a car’s location (for example, to make sure you’re not charged in-state fees for out-of-state travel), colorful debates about “government surveillance” and “little black boxes” are rife.

Cue ringing phone. Since 2013 sessions began, I’ve answered dozens of media calls on gas taxes and per-mile fees, from trade journals and local papers as well as national outlets such as CNN, NBC, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and USA Today.

Just this week, I got to chat live with Chris Baker, a news/talk radio pundit in Omaha, Nebraska. Let me tell you, when your job is to research state taxes and you get a call from an interviewer whose webpage includes the mission statement, “I don’t like state taxes,” you begin to worry about just how neutral the conversation is going to be.

But I like a challenge, so I prepared to talk taxes, fresh from a pep talk from NCSL’s Jon Kuhl. And you know what? It turned out to be way more fun than I’d thought. Aside from a few curveballs about candy bars and a football question I didn’t even understand, I got a chance to share some key facts about what mileage-based fees really are (and aren’t), why states are taking the lead on solving the transportation funding crisis, and even what Oregon has done to protect the privacy of participants in its new program.

And the trick football question? I agreed to answer if he could tell me which five states enacted gas tax increases in their legislatures this year. I guess nobody’s an expert in everything.

Jaime Rall covers transportation funding and finance for NCSL.

Posted in: NCSL, Public Policy
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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.


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