Congress Deadlocks Over Highway Funding Details

Mon July 28, 2003 - Northeast Edition

WASHINGTON (AP) Federal lawmakers may have to settle for a temporary extension on the six-year highway funding bill this year, because they are at odds over how to pay for it — particularly a plan to increase the gasoline tax.

They also are sparring over a funding change that would result in a loss of millions of dollars to Connecticut.

While Congressional leaders aren’t ready yet to concede defeat, individual members are saying it’s becoming obvious they won’t be able to hammer out an agreement before the current funding expires at the end of September. But a key goal is to finish before the end of the year, so lawmakers won’t have to vote on a tax hike in an election year.

Highway subcommittee Chairman Rep. Tom Petri, R-WI, acknowledged the “funding questions have yet to be resolved, but we’re hopeful that they will be at some point.”

Others are more blunt.

“We’ve got a lot of road to cover and conflicting desires. It’s going to be very difficult to meet the time frame,” said Rep. Michael Capuano, D-MA, who is on the highway panel. “I think we’re going to extend it for a while.”

The bill, which funds billions of dollars in highway, bridge and transit projects across the nation, provides critical infrastructure improvements, construction jobs, and economic benefits. And lobbying groups are turning up the pressure on Capitol Hill, knowing that the longer it takes, the harder it will be to get the funding they want.

With little more than six weeks in the session before the deadline, lawmakers still haven’t decided how much to spend, how to distribute it among the states, or how to pay for it.

The Bush administration prefers a $247-billion plan; the Senate is looking at a $311-billion plan; and the House Transportation Committee is pushing for a $375-billion bill that guarantees every state will get at least 95 cents for every dollar it collects in gasoline taxes.

Paying for that measure, however, calls for increasing the 18.4-cent gas tax and raising it each year based on inflation. Advocates argue it is a user fee, and say polls show Americans will pay for better roads.

Further complicating the issue is a proposal being pushed by House Majority Leader Tom Delay, R-TX, to change the funding formula — shifting money from states in the Northeast who do well in the current plan to states in the South and West, such as Texas, Florida and California.

Under that proposal, 18 states would lose. Among them: New York would lose $300 million; Connecticut, $163 million; Pennsylvania, $194 million; Rhode Island, $41 million; and Massachusetts, $37 million.

Connecticut, for example, gets $1.44 for every $1 it collects in gas taxes, one of the highest returns in the nation.

As a result, lawmakers from eastern states have dug in their heels and vowed to block the cuts.

“If they’re going to screw with us, we’re going to raise hell,” said Rep. Rob Simmons, R-CT, adding, “Either the bill gets done this year, or it gets done a year and a half from now.”

House members who back the $375-billion plan say adding enough money to the bill will solve the regional battle by guaranteeing every state the 95-percent return without taking money from states that get more.

House Transportation Chairman Don Young, R-AK, told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that motorists “would rather pay a little more at the pump for safer roads and less congestion.”

And that idea has support from both sides of the aisle.

“We going to have to get more money,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-MA. “I would support an increase in the gas tax.”

So would Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who believes the negotiations are going to require an extension.

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-CT, said he backs the tax hike, but said it’s a hard sell because other GOP members oppose it.

“Ideology is getting in the way of sound public policy,” he said.

In the Senate — where no fewer than four committees control parts of the bill — there is little talk of a tax hike. Instead, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-IA, wants to use federally backed bonding to pay for transit programs, and shift its current share gets over to highway costs.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-CT, a senior member of the Banking Committee that oversees transit, doesn’t like either idea. He said he will oppose the bonding move. He accused Republicans of hurting middle-income Americans and said “to talk about an increase in taxes is tantamount to adding insult to injury.”

Meanwhile radio ads in Washington send a musical message to the tune of “London Bridge:” “Our country’s bridges are falling down, falling down, falling down … Congress needs to fix them.”

A coalition of construction and labor groups is running the ads and plans to expand the effort to other states during the August legislative recess.

Matthew Jeanneret, spokesman for the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, said the coalition will commit “substantial resources” to the campaign to press for action by Sept. 30.

ARTBA is backing the $375-billion bill and the tax hike. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is not openly backing the tax hike but is pressing Congress to get a bill done this year to give states and businesses a reliable funding level.

Other business groups flatly oppose the gas tax increase.

“Right now we’re at an impasse,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, and a member of the transportation committee. “It’s all going to depend on how big the bill is. If it’s big enough, everything else will fall into place rather rapidly.”