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Conservatives See Highway Trust Fund Fight as Road to State Control of Transportation Spending

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Graves, center, introduced a bill last year that would phase out the federal gas tax.

Those calls are coming even as some lawmakers are trying to stimulate an effort to raise the federal gas tax for the first time in 20 years. Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut joined together last week on a plan to raise the tax by 12 cents over two years and then index it to inflation, triggering a larger debate about whether the mechanism even makes sense in an era of greatly improving fuel efficiency.

The conservatives are arguing, however, that the fuel tax is misguided on a more fundamental level.

“It makes no sense that we have a federal gas tax where the money goes to Washington and then the states have to fight over how we get it back down,” said Barney Keller, a spokesman for the Club for Growth, whose members advocate limited government and low taxes. “It doesn’t make sense. It’s a ridiculous system. It leads to a bigger bureaucracy and more inefficiency.”

Graves’ House bill has picked up 41 co-sponsors. Lee’s companion bill in the Senate has four.

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, one of the co-sponsors, said he did not think the Graves measure would get very far, but it could serve as a marker for future talks.

“It’s still pretty bold for a lot of members. It will probably take some time to build adequate support for it,” he said. “We need to find a long-term fix. I think that’s the position of the Republicans in the House and I think states are eager to capture more dollars.”

Brady said he envisioned a reduced, “targeted” federal role in transportation policy, dealing most with projects of national significance or with transportation research.

Another co-sponsor, Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, said coupling smaller federal gas taxes with the ability of states to raise their own revenue is “a possible alternative.”

“The struggle between what’s appropriate for the federal government to do and what’s appropriate for the states to do is what we’re going to hash out in committee,” said Farenthold, a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The Haves and Have-Nots

What’s behind much of the talk about devolving power to states is the concern among some large, high-population states that they send more in gas taxes to Washington than they get in funding.

But transportation advocates say that distinction is irrelevant now that the transportation program relies on billions of dollars of cash infusions from the general fund because the motor fuel tax revenue is declining. In effect, there are no donor states anymore, said David Goldberg, a spokesman for Transportation for America, a bipartisan group that advocates “smart, homegrown, locally driven transportation solutions.”

“The truth,” Goldberg said, “is that everybody’s gotten more back than they’ve put in from the federal gas taxes because of the transfers from the general fund over the last five or six years.”

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