SPECIAL REPORT: Legislators TEA’d off as highway funding scraps continue

| 2/9/2004

The Senate continues to work on a six-year highway spending bill to provide at least 80 percent of states' money for roads and public transit.

Timing is crucial, bipartisan backers warned, since the bill must be enacted by spring for states to build projects during the summer construction season.

Nevertheless, President George Bush said he might veto the bill if tax increases and bond measures, among other devices, are among the funding options.

Bush has threatened to veto bills but has never rejected any legislation once approved by Congress. However, the highway bill is viewed as an important early test for Bush on his drive this year to cut spending and impart new fiscal discipline.

While speaking Feb. 8 on NBC’s Meet the Press, Bush said, “We are dealing with some entitlement programs right now in the Congress. The highway bill. It's going to be an interesting test of fiscal discipline on both sides of the aisle. The Senate's is about $370, as I understand, $370 billion; the House is at less than that but over $300 billion. And as you know, the budget I propose is about $256 billion.”

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and Treasury Secretary John Snow advised Bush to veto any bill that raises taxes or uses budgetary gimmicks to raise the total.

Meanwhile, Sen. Christopher Bond, R-MO, expressed surprise at the veto threat.

He said a paid-for bill has been crafted that doesn't use gas taxes or bonding, creates jobs and lays a foundation for economic growth.

"The last conversation I had with top officials in the administration, I thought we had a mutual understanding. We'll have to continue to discuss that with them," said Bond, according to news accounts.

Moreover, Rep. Don Young, R-AK, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, told President Bush Feb. 4 he was getting bad advice and should reconsider a veto threat. He is backing a $375 billion package that would be paid for by congressional action to raise the gas tax.

In a Feb. 2 letter, Snow and Mineta urged congressional leaders not rely on an increase in the federal gas tax or other taxes to fund transportation.

The letter also said spending should not be funded through bonds "that conceal the true cost to federal taxpayers." The letter went on to say highway spending should be paid for by its dedicated trust fund, not general government revenue.

Young replied, in a letter to Bush obtained by Land Line, said: "I am extremely disappointed with the 'take it or leave it' approach taken by your advisers. 

"They (the advisers) have provided no real alternatives to the problem faced by this Congress. I believe that we have a bicameral, bipartisan consensus that a much larger level of funding is needed for surface transportation than the bare bones approach presented in the administration's SAFETEA proposal. Solutions to these problems cannot be found by issuing edicts or veto threats," the Young letter said.

Young and other key members of his committee favor an increase in the federal gasoline tax by 8 cents over six years – a proposal that has drawn vocal opposition from anti-tax conservatives.

However, Young insisted that creating a strong funding framework “will require consideration of all possible options, including traditional methods of funding as well as new and innovative methods. No option should be placed off limits for discussion.

"I strongly urge you to reach out for new and creative ways to address the funding of one of the most essential programs carried out by the federal government – the funding of highway and transit programs," Young concluded in his letter.

--by Dick Larsen, senior editor

Dick Larsen can be reached at dick_larsen@landlinemag.com.