A law that requires the word “Arizona” to be visible at the top of license plates may seem a little thing.

But its implementation in the New Year, and the requirement that “plate surrounds” be removed or altered, has engendered symbolic wrath from motorists.

What difference does it make, drivers say, that law enforcement can’t read “Arizona,” when the plate has the familiar saguaro and image of Four Peaks emblazoned and visible. Why can’t government fill the potholes, or better yet widen the roadways to ease ever-heavier traffic, they argue.

The points are legitimate, and they come at a time when decision-makers are wrestling with budget shortfalls and infrastructure demands. At the federal level, transportation advocates call for higher fuel taxes. There is examination at the state level, too; Arizona’s fuel tax of 18 cents per gallon is among the nation’s lowest, an ever-smaller proportion of the cost of a gallon when prices hit $4, as they did last year.

Fuel taxes are essentially user taxes. Those who buy more fuel, and who use the roads the most, pay the most in taxes. An increase in the fuel tax, particularly when the price of gasoline is at a five-year low around $1.50 a gallon, may be more palatable now.

But nobody wants to pay more in taxes. Legislators bound for Phoenix next week face a shortfall of more than $1 billion, and a number of them have said, publicly, they want to cut spending without raising taxes. Much luck on that front.

Business leaders who responded to the Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities survey on legislative priorities are urging the protection of education funding and economic development tools. They’re not as concerned with transportation infrastructure, and the tax climate is apparently not at the top of their agendas. There is a disconnect, TREO leaders say, between the stated objectives of the elected, who say they want to cut taxes, and the needs of business, who say they need an educated work force and good schools for the children of employees. Interesting stuff.

Arizona needs to have a reasoned, sensible conversation about how to fund transportation infrastructure. It’s going to involve higher taxes, be they sales, fuel, property … whatever. We must acknowledge that new roads are not free.

In the meantime, there’s an equally symbolic, oddly gratifying way to keep at least part of a “plate surround” on your Arizona license plate while meeting the requirements of state law. Take a hacksaw to the thing, save the screw holes, and chop out “Alumni” or “Pittsburgh” (as in Steelers) or, ironically enough, “Arizona,” as in Diamondbacks.

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