There's a fight shaping up in Washington between Congress and the Bush administration over how much to spend on the nation's highway and mass transit needs.
The last six-year highway program, worth $218 billion, expired last September. Figuring that sooner or later a new bill will be passed, funding has not been stopped and projects have not had to shut down. Yet passing a new bill is a lot easier said than done.
The Senate measure calls for spending $318 billion over the next half-dozen years; the House bill, $284 billion; the White House, $256 billion and threatening to veto any amount over that. Normally, you could expect the House and Senate to compromise at about $300 billion and dare the White House to veto in an election year. But this time around, the president may not bend.
He's been taking a beating from his party's fiscal conservatives for spending too much. Some of his Democratic critics also have been hammering him for the same reason, pointing out that Bill Clinton's presidency produced surpluses, not deficits.
The transportation bill also faces another obstacle which may be more formidable than a presidential veto. Lawmakers from "donor states" that is, states such as Georgia and South Carolina whose gas taxes send more revenues to Washington than they get back are fed up and aren't going to take it anymore. There's not likely to be a transportation bill if they're not brought aboard.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., who voted against the House bill, says the measure actually worsens the fiscal inequality imposed on donor states. That's inexcusable.
With Georgia being the largest geographic state east of the Mississippi and rapidly growing in population, too you'd think it would be one of the states that would be getting the most money back from the trust fund. But, like Texas and California and other heavily traveled states, it receives only about 90 cents for every dollar it pays in. Meanwhile, Alaska gets more than $6 back in highway trust fund revenues for every dollar of gas tax it sends in.
There are other problems with the bill, too namely "earmarks," Congress' euphemistic term for pork. There are 2,800 "earmarks" in the House bill, probably more in the Senate. Most of these projects, at best, are only marginally related to transportation.
Heritage Foundation analyst Ron Utt shows just how pork has taken over transportation spending. In the past 35 years, licensed drivers have gone up 71 percent, registered vehicles 99 percent and miles driven 148 percent. Yet, notes Utt, the number of new road miles is up by only 7 percent.
Even allowing for repairs and rebuilding, there's not nearly enough being spent on new roads. Instead, much of the money is being diverted to mass transportation, which few travelers use but is a great source of pork. We urge Norwood and other lawmakers from donor states to stand by their guns until they get a fair deal.
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