If one state’s transportation needs seem likely to be covered by a federal highway bill, it’s Oklahoma’s.
The state has the good fortune to be represented by Sen. James Inhofe, who as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has the power to direct where hundreds of millions of dollars in federal highway funds go.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.).
Nearly two years behind schedule, the highway bill could finally emerge from a House and Senate conference committee today, to the relief of state officials who say the static federal funding levels in recent years have delayed planned highway improvements.
Despite its well-connected senator, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation hired Inhofe’s former Deputy Chief of Staff Chad Bradley to lobby on the bill, highlighting once again local and state governments’ growing reliance on K Street.
Bradley is actually the department’s second D.C. lobbyist. Since 1997, the Oklahoma Transportation Department has worked with Alan Mauk, who runs his own firm.
Nick Betz, a department spokesman, said the state had such good luck with Mauk that it decided to bring in a second lobbyist to pursue “different funding options.”
Mauk helped win in 1998, the last time the six-year highway bill passed Congress, a $103 million earmark for the state’s I-40 Crosstown project to extend the interstate south from Oklahoma City.
The project, yet to be completed, is “extremely important to the state,” Betz said.
Bradley’s old boss, however, isn’t exactly excited about the decision to use taxpayer dollars to pay for lobbyists.
“They certainly don’t need to [hire lobbyists] when I’m the chairman,” Inhofe told The Oklahoman, which first reported the lobbying contract.
“We’re fully aware of their needs,” Inhofe told the paper.
But Oklahoma is far from the only state turning to K Street for an advantage on the transportation bill — which not only patches potholes and builds bridges but also pays for safety programs and transit systems.
Various groups spent more than $80 million in the first part of 2004 lobbying on transportation issues, the last summary report available from politicalmoney-line.com, a website that tracks lobbying spending and federal campaign contributions.
Transportation was the fifth most lobbied-on issue on Capitol Hill, in terms of dollars spent, behind healthcare, communications and technology, insurance and finance, and business and retail.
Despite the intense interest, Congress has not yet been able to resolve differences between the House and Senate bills, voting instead to extend previous appropriations. That means federal funding levels have remained static in recent years.
President Bush has said that the highway bill should not exceed $283 billion. One source said the bill may go slightly beyond that target but will come close.
Highway bills usually cover six-year periods, although with the delays this bill could cover four years.
“This bill is really very important to all states,” said Jennifer Gavin, a spokeswoman for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). “Providing transportation is one of the most obvious things they do for the public.”
Gavin quoted a Federal Highway Administration estimate that for every $1 billion spent on highways and transit 47,000 jobs are created.
About $2.1 billion in highway projects have been delayed because Congress hasn’t been able to set a new funding target, AASHTO estimates.
Oklahoma isn’t the only state that, although it seems to have a head start in the race for federal dollars, has hired a lobbyist nevertheless.
Sally Oxenhandler, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Transportation Department, said the contract was signed before the governor took office.
“We felt this opened doors that we couldn’t have opened on our own,” Oxenhandler said.
Federal money pays for 40 percent of all the road and bridge construction does in the state, Oxenhandler said. On federal projects, 80 percent of the money comes from federal coffers, with states picking up the remaining 20 percent.
Of the 18 states represented on the Public Works Committee, eight have hired lobbyists in recent years: Oklahoma, Missouri, South Carolina, Louisiana, Delaware, New York, New Jersey and Illinois. Several of these states also had representatives on the House committee as well.
The Senate bill did not include earmarks, although traditionally those are added in the conference committee with the House, which does include earmarks on its bill.
An analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a government-spending watchdog group, found 3,200 earmarks worth $10 billion in the House transportation bill.
One source tracking the issue estimated this bill’s directed appropriations could total as high as $20 billion. Most of the money comes from a tax on gasoline, but that was estimated to bring in only around $260 billion.
Hiring lobbyists inevitably raises the cost of a bill, said Tom Schatz, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste, another spending watchdog.
“That’s the [lobbyists’] objective,” he said.
But Schatz said taxpayer money should not go to K Street pockets.
“Either the governor or the director of the department should have access to their own senator,” he said.