Flake joins Bush administration in opposition to gas tax increase

Praising Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has joined the Bush administration in opposing a gas tax hike.

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The House budget hawk is drafting legislation to increase state authorities’ power to fix “structurally deficient” bridges in the wake of last month’s bridge collapse in Minneapolis. Flake would repurpose earmarked funds in the transportation appropriations bill to finance the repairs.

“This would be up to the states, and frankly it should be,” Flake told The Hill.

The Republican lawmaker’s bill would allow states with a certain number of deficient bridges to direct financing approved for specific projects in transportation appropriations legislation, such as highway beautification or transportation museums, to repairs. Flake has not yet determined in his bill how many deficient bridges a state would need to have to ignore its designated projects.

“The last thing we should do is raise the federal gas tax, which would give members of Congress a bigger slush fund for earmarks,” Flake said. The Arizona Republican already has tried to cut earmarks from this year’s House transportation appropriations bill, but all his amendments failed.  

In testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Wednesday, Peters came out against both earmarking and a gas tax increase.

A tax increase “would likely do little, if anything, without a more basic change in how we analyze competing spending options and manage existing systems more efficiently,” the Cabinet member said in her opening statement. Peters described how “politically designated projects” could override state authorities’ priorities for road management.  

House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) has taken note of the earmarks debate for legislation he plans to offer. The lawmaker plans to create a special bridge trust fund to help maintain the nation’s thoroughfares.

Part of the initiative would keep the fund free of the narrow planned projects. In turn, Oberstar’s bill would also commission an independent study by the National Academy of Sciences to analyze which bridges in disrepair should be fixed first.

“For this particular initiative, let’s keep it based on need and what needs to be fixed,” the House Transportation Committee spokesman, Jim Berard, said.

Oberstar has no plans to try to cancel earmarks in other bills and is also for a gas tax increase, which would help fund his bridge initiative, according to Berard.

“The gas tax has been the backbone of our federal funding over the years for highways and bridges,” Berard said. He added that Oberstar has mentioned implementing a temporary three-year, five-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase — potentially adding up to $25 billion in federal revenue — but nothing has been drafted in legislation as of yet.

The Minnesota lawmaker intends for his bill to come before the committee in the first week of October, according to his opening statement at Wednesday’s hearing.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), another fiscal hardliner, is joining Flake in spotlighting transportation earmarks. The senator is working on an amendment with similar language that could be offered when the Senate transportation appropriations bill comes to the floor.

Flake plans to introduce his bill next week and is working on gathering co-sponsors from both parties. He also is consulting the Transportation Department with regard to the bill.

Further, Flake may try parliamentary procedures, such as a “motion to instruct,” to tack his bill onto the already-passed House transportation appropriations bill once it reaches conference committee.

With other bridges in disrepair and funds falling short, Flake warned it is better to act sooner rather than later.

“We are going to come to a point here where there will be too little money in the highway trust fund,” the lawmaker said.