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Highway Bill Cuts Proposed to Fund Katrina Cleanup

Mon October 03, 2005 - National Edition
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ANCHORAGE, AK (AP) House conservatives have endorsed the popular notion that Americans should give up billions of dollars in highway projects — including more than $450 million for two big bridges in Alaska — to pay for the damage of Hurricane Katrina.

The Republican Study Committee, a group of more than 100 fiscal hawks, launched “Operation Offset” Sept. 21 with a proposal that they say will strip the national budget of more than $500 billion of unnecessary spending.

Prominent on their 23-page list is cutting $25 billion of transportation “earmarks” — the allocations Congress members put in this summer’s highway bill for specific projects in their home districts.

“I just know in my heart, the people of eastern Indiana, if given a choice between helping and rebuilding a devastated section of our coast and improving roads in Muncie and Anderson and Richmond, they would choose to do the former,” said Rep. Mike Pence, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, speaking of his constituents.

He and several other members of his caucus presented the proposal at a Capitol Hill press conference.

Alaska Congressman Don Young, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, is largely responsible for the $286 billion highway bill Congress passed in July.

He said that if other states want to give up their project money to help Katrina victims, it’d be fine with him.

As for the many editorial writers, commentators and congressional critics who suggest Alaska should give up its bridge money, Young invited them to kiss his ear. He also noted that his bill spends gas tax revenues, which are intended only for transportation projects.

The Republican Study Committee’s hit list includes scores of other proposals, such as:

• Delay the Medicare drug benefit for a year; save $30 billion.

• Drop increases to the president’s global AIDS initiative ($2.9 billion over five years).

• Eliminate federal money for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ($2.1 billion).

• Eliminate the Denali Commission and the Appalachian Regional Commission ($226 million).

• Drop “corporate welfare” spending ($25 billion).

•┬áCharge federal employees for parking ($720 million).

Members of the group acknowledge that they have unsuccessfully pushed for these cuts long before Katrina devastated New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf of Mexico. The storm and the expensive rebuilding ahead, they say, have rallied Americans to their side.

But Republican unity is apparently one of the victims of Hurricane Katrina. President Bush’s spokesman Mike McClellan said that delaying the drug benefit is no answer.

“There are a number of low-income seniors in the region that were affected by Katrina, and it’s important that we continue to move forward to provide seniors with the prescription drug benefit and other benefits provided under the Medicare reforms that were passed,” he said.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-TX, said he didn’t want to give up his transportation earmarks because they will be important to the Texas economy. He also said that after 11 years of Republican budgets, there isn’t a lot left to cut to offset the Katrina expenses.

Republican Study Committee members scoff at that idea.

“The notion that we don’t have any fat to cut is just — I mean, if the federal government wore a dress, it would have to be a muumuu,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-AZ.

Members of his group said they want to keep President Bush’s tax cuts, which they say will fuel the gulf’s economic recovery.

Practically since Katrina struck there were grumbles and snide remarks about building “bridges to nowhere” while New Orleans drowned. With passing days, the idea of cutting the transportation earmarks has spread like a prairie fire.

But it isn’t as simple as it may sound, said Keith Ashdown, spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense. That’s because not all earmarks are alike.

Approximately $10 billion of the $25 billion of special projects in the bill will come to the states as an extra, on top of the each state’s allocation of formula funds for transportation. Congress could rescind that spending, Ashdown said, with another bill.

The rest of the earmarks come out of the money a state would get anyway. In essence, this second type of earmark tells the state how to spend its highway dollars.

In Alaska, for example, approximately 78 percent of the $229 million for the Knik Arm bridge comes from the state’s formula money.

For Congress to eliminate the earmarked formula money would really require renegotiating the foundation of the bill, Ashdown said.

“Technically, it’s feasible to cut anything,” he said. “But politically it’s pretty insurmountable.”

Flake also said cutting into formula funds wouldn’t be easy.

“Most of Alaska’s bridges are actually coming out of Alaska’s formula, so it is not as simple a solution as some people are putting forward,” he said.

He said Congress could still rescind approximately $25 billion from highway spending.

“I think we ought to just lob a huge chunk off the top,” Flake said.