Taxpayer groups riled by costly amendment to the highway bill

Taxpayer watchdog organizations are outraged about an amendment backed by the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee that would add billions of dollars to the 2005 highway bill.

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) are expected to offer the amendment this week that would push the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005 (Safetea) billions of dollars over the figure approved by the House.

The House approved legislation in March to spend $284 billion over the next six years for transportation projects. The Senate bill, without the Grassley-Baucus amendment, would do the same, in keeping with a White House spending limit. President Bush has said he would veto a bill that went over that figure.

“Any attempt to add more money to an already stuffed bill would be a U-turn from fiscal responsibility,” said Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union (NTU). “If members of Congress want to put this bill behind them, they should have used the president’s number as the ceiling, not the floor.”

David Williams, vice president of policy for Citizens Against Government Waste, said, “The federal government should pay for transportation, but they should get rid of the earmarks.”

He added, “When is enough enough?” citing projects such as transportation museums as unnecessarily included in the 2005 bill.

Both groups are lobbying members to stick to the president’s budget. “We almost had a victory at $284 billion,” Williams said.

A spokeswoman for Grassley said he and Baucus are working toward an amendment that keeps any deficit increase to a minimum.

Brian Deery, senior director for the Associated General Contractors of America’s (AGC) highway and transportation division, said, “We are supporting the increase in funding. … Clearly the transportation needs are out there.”

Deery said that if the president vetoes the bill it would not have an immediate impact on projects in progress; however, he cautioned that any prolonged stalemate could hurt new state projects.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta urged the Senate to adhere to the White House’s $284 billion figure.

“If the Congress chooses to irresponsibly add billions to the cost of the bill, it is setting itself up to raise gas taxes or risk bankrupting the Highway Trust Fund in the very near future,” Mineta said in a statement. “Neither option is acceptable.”

The Grassley spokeswoman said, “The reality is most members want more highway funding in a deficit-neutral way. As a result, Senator Grassley is working with many others on a bipartisan amendment that will increase highway funding without adding to the deficit.”

She added, “Fixating on an artificial highway number in a vacuum is neither reasonable nor productive, especially when we can increase revenues to the trust fund by merely cracking down on fraud and abuse in fuel-tax collection.”

Will Hart, a spokesman for Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) and a sponsor of the Senate bill, said he hopes to have a final vote by the end of this week.

“We have had a veto threat for the last two years,” Hart said. He added that since the Grassley amendment will most likely pass, any additional action would take place in conference. Last year, the Senate passed a highway bill totaling $318 billion, but the bill stalled in conference.

“We want a bill the president can sign, and we are confident that House conferees can produce such a bill,” said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “

The current extension for highway funding expires May 31.