UPDATE: For more, see our post “The bike tax is just a distraction: The real problem is the billions on new highways”
State Democrats unveiled a $10 billion revenue package for transportation Wednesday that includes monstrous investments in new highways and highway expansions and comparatively few investments in safe streets and projects that make it easier and safer to bike and walk in cities and towns across the state.
And yet, one proposed new source of revenue to pay for all this is a $25 tax on the sale of bicycles costing $500 or more. Yes, a bicycle tax.
A bicycle tax makes no sense for many reasons, several of which Cascade points out and a few of which I will get into below. But the most important reason is that bicycling actually saves the government money.
It is estimated that a mile cycled in Copenhagen results in a $.42 economic gain for the government. A mile driven costs the government $.20.
Closer to home, a study in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health found that Portland’s investments in cycling will save the city $388 to $594 million in health care costs by the year 2040. When you calculate the statistical value of lives saved (grim, I know, but it’s a science journal), the amount of money saved jumps into the billions.
The state should provide incentives for behavior they want to encourage. Bicycling is unequivocally good for the state, both economically and in terms of health and well-being. To tax the purchase of bicycles up to 5 percent on top of existing sales taxes simply makes no sense.
Now, I also understand that discussions about transportation funding and taxes are not always rational or data-based. Rep. Judy Clibborn, who played a key role in crafting the transportation package, told the Stranger that she does not agree with the bike tax even though she is the one who put it in the package. So why did she put it there?
“They always say—and I don’t agree—that [cyclists] are not paying for anything,” she told the Stranger. The Seattle Times says the bike tax, which would only raise about $1 million over ten years, was “included for largely symbolic reasons.”
Yet it could have very real implications for small, struggling local bike shops across the state. While Wal-Mart and K-Mart might have no trouble stocking bikes that cost less than $500 (Biking Bis suggested naming the tax the “Wal-Mart Protection Act”), small bike shop margins on bike sales (especially low and mid-range bikes) are very slim. $25 is a low-end set of lights, u-lock or helmet. It’s hard enough to pay a small staff and keep the doors open without either forking out $25 on every bike sale. Passing the tax onto customers would make it that much harder for them to compete with prices at online bike sellers.
Most local bike shop owners I meet are like book store owners: They do it because they love it, and they’re happy if they can pay staff, pay bills and take a little home at the end of the day. After all, it’s about pairing people with the right book/bike. I’m not sure they are the ones who need to be paying disproportionately for freeway expansions.
If this transportation plan included significant and bold investments in safe cycling facilities across the state, I might be willing to consider a “symbolic” tax like this, especially if it would help make the package a reality. Unfortunately, the vast majority of money in the proposed package is still headed to private automobile projects, many on freeways that bikes are not even allowed to use, let alone have a safe space to ride. Here’s where the money will go, according to the fact sheet:
As you will see, there is a fairly exciting $60 million complete streets investment pool. This money could go to towns and cities across the state to redesign dangerous streets to reduce car collisions and increase safety and access for people on foot and bike. That’s great, but their own graph shows that this level of investment rounds to zero percent of the total package.
And here’s how the other 100 percent will be paid for:
People who bike pay into most, and often all, of these pools of money. Most adults who bike also own a car, and the motor vehicle excise tax costs the same whether you drive every day of only keep it around for occasional use. And now there’s an added bike tax, too.
Highways are immensely expensive, both to build and to maintain. But bicycle infrastructure essentially pays for itself in health care savings, not to mention quality of life. This should be celebrated and supported, not discouraged with “symbolic” 5 percent taxes.
And really, this is all irrelevant because the vast majority of bike lanes and safe city streets projects are paid for by municipalities, not the state. And as the draft funding plan shows, there are no plans to change that. So why do State Democrats want to raise taxes on bikes again?
68 responses to “Why a statewide bike tax makes no sense”
The biggest illusion of this proposal, as Tom points out, is that this is a state tax with revenue going for state projects, not municipal projects. I don’t ride on the freeway or the viaduct. (Ok, if I ride out in the country, I’m probably on a state highway – would some of the funds going to rural highways?)
Anyway, for a paltry $1M, why cause so much damage?
Pedestrians aren’t being asked to pay anything. We need a tax on shoes.
Pedestrians, cyclists, driver, bus riders, etc all pay for non-state owned roads with property taxes and sales taxes (which includes shoes).
I say lower the tax to $10 per bike and apply it to ALL bike sales. Guarantee that money will only be spent on cycle facilities and cyclist safety enhancements for WSDOT projects.
Why? The money from car tabs is being spent on bike stuff also and it doesn’t look like bicyclists mind it at all.
KaraBoq – where is your data showing money from car tabs is being spent on bike stuff?
I would actually be fully supportive of a bike tax (as a percentage not a fixed fee) and a bike registration fee. IF these funds are fully allocated to cleaning and maintaining existing bike lanes and routes.
Pulling a three centimeter shard of glass out of my tire this morning on Spring street (bike “lane”) I can safely say Seattle has some of the filthiest roads and bike lanes I have ever ridden on and I’m already absorbing the cost of this through purchasing tubes and tires and time required to constantly fix flats.
A registration system and fees would also help to track stolen bikes and enable the city to more accurately track bicycle ownership/use levels. It’s definitely not a new idea as we had mandatory registration and fees where I grew up in the Midwest and Florida.
Now you’ve hit my pet peeve. We keep building more bike lanes, but many a hazardous to ride because there is very little cleaning of the lanes.
This could be even more exacerbated in the new cycle tracks Seattle is installing, I’m excited for them, but also curious about how SDOT will keep them clean.
We need one of these: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSv4xXgmQKY
Or we’ll just have to make them wide enough to fit our existing sweepers!
Seriously, though, they will need some sweeping. But with space and/or barriers between the general purpose lanes and the cycle track, I wonder if there will be less debris. Or I wonder if this is an opportunity for an innovative business. Let’s attach a sweeper to those billboard bikes! “This clean bike lane brought to you by Geico!”
The vehicle excise tax is 0.7%. This bike excise tax is as high as 5%. That’s one key issue with it…
Actually cars also pay it with a gas tax which amounts to far more, and some of those gas tax dollars go to bike lanes (although to be fair, not enough goes).
But isn’t this a one-time bike fee, rather than the annual fee drivers pay? I pay about $125 a year just for my car tabs. (And in the breakout of fees there is a fee of about $18 that is listed as a bus & bike thing.)
In Washington, the sales tax for cars is an additional 0.3% above the regular sales tax.
If the state wants to charge an extra 0.3% sales tax for bikes, I’m okay with that. 0.3% seems reasonable.
I’d even be okay with an annual 0.7% excise tax… IF law enforcement treated bicycle theft with the same gravity that they treat automobile theft.
5%? In what universe is that equitable?
… and never mind that much of the revenue will be eaten up by administration costs. That said, I’m for it as long as we get substantive, long term improvements in funding for bike safety projects.
Maybe that’s a better way to put it: Either ditch the tax or make a significant investment in safe cycling facilities, maintenance, education, etc. Putting zero percent of the new package into complete streets—only some of which will include bike lanes and all of which will benefit everybody on the roads—isn’t enough to justify this.
If there was a big investment in Safe Routes to School on top of the complete streets fund, I might be more willing to consider a bike tax (though I would definitely rather have it be based on bike value than flat rate, as DrGeoduck points out). But I cannot accept a bike tax to fund freeways.
Here’s the Transportation for Washington response (points out that biking and walking funds dramatically miss the mark): http://t4washington.org/2013/02/21/rep-clibborn-proposes-transportation-revenue-bill/
The “Package Fact Sheet” on the proposal is missing a lot in the way of facts. If it’s a $10 billion transportation proposal, why does “projects” add up to $7.6 billion, and “sources” adds up to $8.5 billion? And why do the “projects” numbers bear almost no resemblance to the percentages on the pie chart?
The most irritating part about this whole bike tax thing is that it’s just a cop-out to mollify the anti-bike crowd. Most of the funds are going to highways on which bikes aren’t even allowed!
Well, maybe it’s to pay back the drivers that have been funding bike lanes and shared lanes and those green patches, all the while taking back seat to bicyclists for right-of-way (in Seattle).
Kristy, it appears you did not read the whole story. Every project you are describing is a municipal project, not a state project. Green boxes, bike lanes, sharrows: These are all paid for by Seattle (or the relevant municipality), and everybody pays for our city’s transportation projects regardless of how they choose to get around. For a funding breakdown, see here: http://www.seattlemet.com/news-and-profiles/publicola/articles/we-all-pay-for-the-roads
I would support mandatory statewide registration and additional taxes on bikes at a similar percentage to cars if it meant we could get serious about bicycle infrastructure (and to shut up the reality-avoiding anti-bike idiots). As mentioned a registration system would help with theft as well. As it stands this symbolic tax doesn’t make any sense. What a shitty package.
I am all for the idea of registration and licensing similar to cars. Requiring licenses to ride on the roads , using registration and licensing fees to fund better bicycle-only paths or lanes, and keeping bicyclists off sidewalks would make everyone safer and the whole situation would be much more equitable.
We are bicycle stores. I already collect sales tax for the state, pay cc fees, pay b and o, pay city of Seattle tax, permit fees (sidewalk sign and business), employ 3 people, pay payroll industrial insurance, rent and pay property tax, and pay federal taxes all while competing with Bikes Direct and Amazon for market share. Tell them to collect on bikes under $350 if they are going to collect at all. Thats where the money is! Walmart and Fred Myers etc. Adding a cost to buy a bike makes it more difficult for me to compete. This tax is totally ridiculous and obscene to me personally and a slap in the face of small business. Christiaan – Ride Bicycles Bike Shop Seattle
The government is definitely not pro-small-business (neither major party) since small businesses aren’t the ones funding campaigns.
It’s still a “free ride” (your words not mine) for cyclists unless they buy a new bike from a bike shop for $500 or more. Last time I checked people who bicycle already pay sales taxes on products they buy (not just bikes). There is no free ride (cyclist or not), we have plenty of taxes already on commerce and people are paying, I know I send the check in for sales tax collected, also every car owner pays.
JimmyJack- why must you belittle the bike.
-Sales tax is already implemented on bike purchase. As people pointed out most bike owners, already own cars and use them. WE pay Tax just about everywhere. Don’t think they are not wishing they could tax the air we breath, it is after all in the USA.
TAXES…. what a bunch of BS! I have to say that the WA state government needs to get there collective heads out of their “cavern” and take a look around, breath and come to an understanding that WE THE PEOPLE do not support this additional transportation TAX on BIKES. Honestly and logically can they really think this is a good idea?
Yes, bikes use roads but, NO they do not damage the roads nor add any pollution to the atmosphere so HOW can they warrant a new TAX. Oh yes, mismanagement of funds that already exist in order to keep the MACHINE running. Oh and BTW lets raise the GAS TAX some more… SHEESH!
Washington State named after the 1st President and Sooo wants to lead the nation in extra TAXes! WE are soo AWESOME!
Also, why is MOST the money spent on Western WA Infrastructure? Last time I checked many many Westsiders, come to Eastearn WA to recreate.
It’s stupid and petty. New tax or licensing revenue always has be balanced against the cost and burden (to both bike shops and the state) in carrying out the new tax. There’s not a chance it would pencil here; costs of collection would swamp whatever revenues are brought in. More here: http://singlespeedseattle.com/wa-proposes-25-tax-on-bicycles/
I’d like to buy this thousand dollar banana please. Wait! It comes with a free bike!! AWESOME!!!
So, if the logic is that bikes don’t pay for roads, just cars do, then any bike owner who owns a car would naturally be exempt.
And, so, if all you’re charging for is bikers that don’t own cars, first give them a refund for the $400/Washingtonian that the Viaduct tunnel will cost, but they can’t use.
I’m happy to pay even more than that if it means tangible improvements to bike infrastructure, but as is I pay property tax to subsidize people sitting in auto traffic daily on the freeway, a freeway I might use six or seven times per year. A bike tax only makes sense if there are corresponding taxes levied to address actual infrastructure usage based on frequency and mode based wear and tear for all vehicles.
Something that should be taxed for transportation and road maintenance is studded tires. So many people in Western Washington put studded tires on their cars for a few days that it snows (or even the fear of snow), but keep them on all winter. And at some point before the removal deadline the roads are likely bare in Eastern Washington as well. Studded tires chew up bare roads. If there’s going to be a bike fee, maybe the money could be put towards building a bike lane during the Hwy 520 expansion, which at last I heard may not happen because of the extra costs.
I own a car and drive to work occasionally, though more frequently I ride the bus. I own several bikes and ride to work regularly, always over potholed, cracked and debris-covered municipal surface streets. The notion of paying a bike-specific tax to support state projects that have virtually zero benefit to bike commuters, recreational cyclists and the independent bicycle shops that support anyone who owns and rides a bicycle is as ridiculous as it is nonsensical. The vast majority of cyclists are also car owners, so this tax is effectively double jeopardy. Cycling is part of the solution, not the problem, so ditch the proposed bike-tax and focus on comprehensive transportation solutions that encourage more people to try bike commuting and cycling in a safe and pleasant environment so they can enjoy the benefits that so many cycle commuters have already discovered (not the least of which it is a fun way to get to work if you can avoid the potholes, cracked asphalt, trolley tracks in South Lake Union and derelict rail lines in Ballard).
“The vehicle excise tax is 0.7%. This bike excise tax is as high as 5%. That’s one key issue with it…”
You don’t understand the difference between a sales tax and an excise tax. A sales tax is charged once, and an excise tax is charged periodically. (generally annually)
Motor vehicles pay licensing fees that function as excise taxes—–they come year after year after year. Unless you think annual licensing is a good idea for bicycles, a 5% sales tax surcharge is a small fee that recaptures road improvements the public is making for the benefit of the cycling public. If you commute strictly by bicycle, you’re WAY ahead in terms of benefits received vs. taxes paid.
I’m a walker, driver, and cyclist, and I think everyone needs to contribute.
No, that is not what excise tax means. Excise tax just means it’s not applied generally.
Is there anything the money grabbers in Olympia will not tax? Soon they will try for a breathing tax. This state government is out of control. The gas tax is the 9th highest in the nation and they want more? Raise the gas tax and toll I90 with talks of tolling the 405 as well?
God forbid car culture actually pays for the resources it uses..
Like we don’t pay now. Oh please.
Sure you pay. Just not enough to cover the costs of SOV private car culture.
Ok, for an annual tax put it on bicycle tires, oh wait, it’s easily avoided by buying on line…Trouble is adding tax to high end bicycles only doesn’t raise enough money and just is an appeasement to the “I hate spandex rider” group. Better to tax ALL bicycles a lesser amount. $5? Walmart, Fred Meyer, Costco et.al.
Excise tax is un-enforceable. We are not going to stand for the police marching into folks garages and seeing how many bicycles you have to pay on every kids bike.
But in any case it needs to be a dedicated fund that is only spent on bicycle related stuff, like overpasses over freeways, dedicated bike lanes, rails to trails conversions etc.
Go take a look at the transportation revenue forecast for the state of WA for the period of 2013 to 2015 from fuel tax collections, licenses permits and fees, vehicle sales tax, driver related fees, rental car tax, aviation revenue, etc. and then write me again to tell me how we all underpay in the “car culture.” Get real. With people like you in government, the revenues will never be enough, always with your hand out.
As the forecast shows higher fuel efficiency combined with the economic downturn and people switching to mass transit to avoid escalating fuel prices has drastically reduced the transportation budget for WA and almost every single other state.
Without additional taxes you have a severe issue of declining tax revenue but costs that continue to escalate with inflation. How do you propose to deal with that? We know from TNB what happens when you let the private sector build infrastructure (it costs taxes payers billions more than it would have if the state designed and operated it).
Ah if we all are overpaying our taxes how come the State Supreme court ruled that the state has underfunded the schools? So where is that additional money going to come from?
When revenue is tight and economy sucks it does allow government to trim out useless or less than useful programs that otherwise are someone’s pork for their county. That’s mostly been done under the last governor. Next up is spending efficiently that means moving the most people the fastest for the least cost. Private autos are not the least cost mode but they are a favorite of those who use them and I totally get that. However its time to shift the priorities to reusable vehicles, low cost right of ways, and shared right of ways. That’s HOV’s, rail, buses, walking and bicycles. It’s less convenient but it’s healthier and lower cost.
So it costs me a little over 100 bucks to renew the tabs on my Suburu every year. If we are going to compare excise taxes on autos to bicycles, I think the fair way to do it is by vehicle weight- given that vehicle weight is a good indicator of the overall impact on the environment in terms of air quality, wear and tear on roads, space occupied, and so on.
Lets be generous and say my bicycle weighs 40 pounds (it does sometimes with groceries). The Suburu maybe weighs 4000 pounds? Then the excise tax on the bicycle should be 1 dollar. The point being that on this crowded, polluted planet- taxing bicycles isn’t really a good idea. We should be taxing the shit out of my Suburu, but not my bike.
“Given that vehicle weight is a good indicator of the overall impact on the environment in terms of air quality, wear and tear on roads, space occupied, and so on.”
I like your line of thinking, and just want to clarify this one point (which has multiple implications).
Road wear and tear for a vehicle scales by the fourth power of the axle loading.
So the road wear and tear from a 4000 lb, two-axle vehicle is (2000^4 = 1.6e13) / (20^4 = 1.6e4) = 100,000,000 times greater than the road wear from a bicycle.
Another way of stating that bicycles cause essentially no road wear at all.
What does drive road repair costs? It’s virtually all down to heavy vehicles, causing in the range of 10,000 times more damage each than an efficient car:
OK a tax on non-carbon loading bikes then I want to see a $500 dollar carbon tax on any car sales over $5,000 or if the car does not get over 20mpg. What part of global climate change don’t they get? No thought on looking at anything in a wholeistic context.
Everyone is trying to rationalize this when, in fact, it’s not a rational proposal. It’s like arguing with the person who says the sun isn’t bright on a sunny day. Listen, let’s start a bicycle licensing campaign instead so we can pay for the sharrow and bike lane spray paint that seems to last about 1 week, but takes city workers weeks to spray. Why apply a separate bike tax to the Othello bicyclist who just wants to putz around town? If we bike, we license. Simple. Let local governments make the decision.
Bike licensing is moronic. It’s failed everywhere it’s been tried because a) it doesn’t deliver any meaningful public safety benefit and b) the costs of administering a licensing program outweigh the licensing revenues. http://singlespeedseattle.com/bike-licensing/
And that’s to say nothing of the fact that such programs discourage an activity that should be more actively promoted.
I am an avid rider and completely support this tax proposal. Is it sensible and fair? Not by a long shot. People above make great points. It is easily avoided and doesn’t fairly account for relative costs of riding versus driving, among other good points. But once it’s done, we riders and advocates for bike infrastructure will never again have to respond to those regressive car culture proponents who say, “why don’t you do your part to pay for all of this?” I can argue then from a position of moral authority: bikers pay their fair share and should be entitled to a seat at the table in discussing infrastructure changes in the future. Maybe the city isn’t spending enough to improve bike routes fast enough for us (really it isn’t). So if we’re paying something then we’re justified in asking for more.
Ultimately my personal cost would be maybe $25 in the next 10 years. If I buy a brand-new bike. Which may not happen. Pretty minimal.
If this tax really would end that argument, then I might be inclined to agree. But I really don’t think it will.
However, I could be willing to consider such a tax if there were some truly significant investments in bicycle projects included in the bill (like, money to help connect our many regional trail missing links and more money for complete streets and safe routes to school). I know such projects would be a bitter pill for many in the legislature to swallow, so the bike tax could be used if necessary to help it go down. However, to give up a bike tax without really getting any significant new investments is not a good way to bargain.
“I pay you now, and someday you’ll remember that we did that, right?”
Not likely. Present a bold plan for bike safety and access, or get rid of the tax.
You must be unaware of the recent $4.9M Burke-Gilman trail renovation, as well as the hundreds of thousands spent on sharrows, restriping, and other changes made to benefit cyclists. Also consider that the privilege of having a bike lane on the 520 bridge adds at least $100M to the cost.
I’m not saying that any of these are a bad idea. But those who suggest that cyclists already pay their way simply because a bicycle wears the road slowly ignore the fact that roads deteriorate on their own with weather and time. The BG cost was inflated because of problems with tree roots. These are things that happen when you maintain a right of way.
Cyclists like to say that they already pay through their car tabs. Specious argument. If you own two cars, you pay two sets of tabs. A bicycle shouldn’t get a free ride simply because of lower road wear and health/environmental benefit.
Consider a future when nobody drives and everyone walks or cycles. Then there would be no money at all to take care of the roads. “Car culture” as defined by some on this board has built the roads that allow bicycles to pass. It is wrong for cyclists to use this infrastructure without paying something toward its maintenance.
Impose a road tax at new sale or require licenses. Take your pick.
Oh yeah, we’re closing in this real fast:
“Consider a future when nobody drives and everyone walks or cycles.”
And please add to this impending future that there are no heavy trucks – which actually cause the great majority of road wear and tear, today and within the planning horizon, resulting in road surfaces that fail long before weathering in itself is significant.
“Consider a future when nobody drives and everyone walks or cycles. Then there would be no money at all to take care of the roads. ”
What a beautiful, wonderful problem to have!
You are conveniently ignoring that everyone, no matter how they get around town, pay the lion’s share of transportation funds through sales, property and Federal taxes. The Burke-Gilman was paid largely by King County. I don’t have an exact breakdown of their funding sources, but I bet the vast majority if not all of it came from property and sales taxes.
And, of course, biking and walking trails are for more than just biking (shouldn’t we also charge the people walking on them, using your reasoning?).
In your dystopian (utopian?) vision of a world without cars, think about the many billions of dollars we wouldn’t have to spend on building new freeways and repaving the ones we have! Bike trails are expensive compared to painting bike lanes. But they cost on par with a rounding error for your standard freeway repaving.
You’re comparing apples and oranges. The cost of a freeway and the cost of bike facilities are essentially incomparable they are so different. Yet most of the cost of our transportation system (even the highways you can only use in a motor vehicle) is paid for from sources we all pay.
I ride every day.
I am all for a tax to help make the ride safer. The proposed tax is worthy of consideration.
The bike lobby lacks credibility when it seeks many millions for street and trail improvements yet screams bloody murder at any suggestion for a modest tax on cycling.
Sure, we pay other taxes just like everyone else. But unlike most, we require special bike centric improvements on streets and trails.
(Anyone looked at the cost of the new bike lane that comes with the new 520 bridge? This proposed modest tax is pennies on that multimillion dollar cost.)
I’d bet that a modest tax would deliver investment far beyond what it raises just by providing seed money that can be leveraged from lots of other sources.
Save the knee jerk no new tax stuff for the troglodytes. Wake up and think about the big picture.
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People actually elected this guy? Really? ? Breathing out co2 gas is a pollutant. This guy is not for his constituents but only for him self. I don’t know his real agenda but clearly biking is a great activity and if you can do it you should.
This guy is an enbarsment to the Republican party . Anyone with an IQ of over 90 wouldn’t make such an uneducated comment.