The highway bill that the Senate sent to President Reagan yesterday continues a shift in the federal tax mix that has been going on throughout the administration--toward higher excise taxes to offset the revenue lost by the large individual and corporate income tax cuts of 1981.
Yesterday's bill raises the federal excise taxes on gasoline, diesel fuel and truck tires and the highway user fee for heavy trucks.
The much larger tax increase that Congress voted last August boosted the federal excise tax on small cigarettes from 8 to 16 cents a pack effective Jan. 1, and on longer ones from 16.8 to 33.6 cents a pack. The tax on telephone bills is to triple from 1 to 3 percent on Jan. 1 as well.
In addition, that bill lifted the tax on airline passenger tickets from 5 to 8 percent, imposed a $3 "departure" fee on international travelers and a 5 percent tax on air freight shipments, and increased taxes on aviation fuels.
Together, these excise tax increases are expected to bring in about $7.5 billion in 1983 and about $10.6 billion in 1984.
One effect of this shift may be to make the federal tax mix less progressive; the burden will be shifted somewhat toward lower income levels. In addition, the new excise taxes likely will add 0.2 to 0.3 percent to the rate of inflation in 1983, analysts estimate.
Analysts say they think gasoline prices are likely to be falling next spring, when the April 1 tax increase will occur. Even so, it will be felt, raising prices at the pump nearly 4 percent and boosting the consumer price index by about 0.2 percent that month alone.
In addition to the excise taxes, the federal tax imposed on employers to pay for unemployment benefits will also rise on Jan. 1. The rate goes from 3.4 to 3.5 percent, and it will have to be paid on the first $7,000 in wages, up from $6,000.
The unemployment tax will increase employers' costs by an estimated $1.4 billion next year and by about $3 billion when the rate goes on up to 6.2 percent in 1985.
Meanwhile, waiting in the wings are a variety of proposals to raise the Social Security tax, probably in 1984, by advancing rate increases already called for by law in 1985, 1986 and 1990.
These wage tax increases would also leave the federal tax structure less progressive and -- by raising business costs -- add to inflation, in the opinion of many economists.
Except in the case of the telephone and cigarette tax increases, which are intended only to raise revenue, advocates of the tax hikes had other reasons for their position:
* The higher taxes on aviation are intended to help pay for expensive improvements to the nation's airports and air traffic control equipment and operating expenses.
* The higher tax for unemployment benefits is viewed as needed because continued high unemployment is driving the program far into the red in most states.
* The gasoline tax increase is to be used to fund highway construction and repair and some mass transit projects as well.
Politically, the link between these taxes and the programs they support has been too strong to be broken by much consideration of the most efficient and least inflationary ways to raise the needed revenue. As a consequence, inflation is apt to be slightly higher than it would be if the same revenue were raised using income taxes.
This difficulty is even more acute in the case of Social Security, where payroll taxes are called "contributions" and regarded by most workers as wholly apart from their other federal taxes -- even though the entire Social Security system operates on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Moving up the date of the three presently scheduled tax increases to January, 1984, would raise about an additional $25 billion in 1984 alone. Half of that would be paid by employers, and the added $12 billion or more in business costs could add another 0.3 percent to inflation that year.
Thus, if Congress and the president should choose to speed up these tax increases, that action coupled with the higher excise taxes already enacted could increase 1984 inflation as much as 0.6 percent.
If the Federal Reserve is seeking to hold down growth of the economy a year from now, the higher excise and payroll taxes might result in a weaker economy and higher unemployment rather than more inflation.