Committee finds $9.6 billion for $109B Senate transportation bill

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The Highway Trust Fund is traditionally funded by the federal gas tax, which currently brings in about $36 billion a year from an 18.4 cents per gallon taxation rate.  The transportation bill that has emerged from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee would spend about $54 billion per year on transportation over the next two years, creating the shortfall Baucus sought Tuesday to address.

Among the sources of the extra money approved the Senate Finance Committee is $3.7 billion from the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund.
Baucus said Tuesday it was “important to note” that the LUST trust fund money is also generated by the federal gas tax, even as he acknowledged the transfer would not provide enough money to close the funding gap.

“Where we cannot find more revenue from the Highway Trust Fund’s usual funding sources, we have focused on funding that bears a nexus to transportation,” he said Tuesday. “We have therefore explored funding from transportation and energy sources.”

Among those proposals is a so-called “gas guzzler tax,” on vehicles that weigh less than 6,000 pounds and do not meet the current fuel economy standard of 22.5 miles per gallon. Baucus said the proposal would generate $697 million.

He noted that although the proposal called for moving money that normally goes to federal government’s general fund for operations, “importantly, we do this by closing tax gaps rather than raising taxes.”

Other provisions include ending a tax credit for “black liquor,” which is the byproduct of the process of making paper, and revoking passports of citizens who owe more than $50,000 in past due taxes. The proposals are predicted to raise $2.786 billion and $743 million over the next ten years.

Also included in the financing package for the transportation bill is increasing the ability of IRS to collect delinquent Medicare taxes and transferring some tariff collections into the Highway Trust Fund, which Baucus said would raise $841 million and $2.474 billion over the next years respectively.

“These things are hard to do, and each of us, if we were King, would craft a different package,” Baucus said. “We have to recognize that we cannot fix our budget deficit by refusing to address our infrastructure deficit.”

Republicans on the Finance Committee attempted to add another proposal to the financing package Tuesday in the form of an amendment from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). Hatch’s amendment would have replaced all of Baucus produced funding sources with money generated from offshore oil drilling and approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Baucus objected to the amendment, saying it would “kill the bill,” but Republicans on the committee argued the proposal made sense.

“To the point that the chamber and the unions support it, they also support the Keystone pipeline," Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said in response to Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) push for a $10 billion national infrastructure bank.

"I'd be prepared to make an even exchange and make it a two-fer," Kyl said of the drilling and infrastructure proposals.

Hatch eventually withdrew his amendment after Baucus ruled it was not germane to the transportation bill.

And before the meeting was over Tuesday, the chairman of the Finance Committee was waxing poetic about the transportation financing process.

"Life's complicated, the tax code's complicated, but we all make our choices," Baucus said.

The Finance Committee was the third and final Senate panel to approve the highway bill, clearing the way for an initial vote on the Senate floor that could come as early as Thursday.