Mike Lee seeks to stall increase in gas tax

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Sen. Mike LeeMike LeeDonald Trump's Mormon PR problem Trump's big worry isn't rigged elections, it's GOP establishment GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election MORE (R-Utah) wants to make it harder for lawmakers to increase the federal gas tax as they search for way to pay for a new transportation spending bill later this year.  

Lee is introducing an amendment to the Senate’s budget resolution that would increase the threshold for lawmakers in the upper chamber to hike the tax or introduce any new levies to replenish the Department of Transportation's Highway Trust Fund.

The transportation funding is currently scheduled to run out of money in May, and Lee's amendment would increase the requirement in the Senate to increase the gas tax to pay for an extension from 50 to 60 votes.  

Lee said he is offering the amendment to protect U.S. residents from being hit with an increase in cost when they fill up their gas tanks. 

"For decades, the American people have been stuck with the same dysfunctional transportation system — a transportation system that costs taxpayers more money every year, while failing to provide value with our nation’s highways, roads, bridges, and transit networks. In response, many offer Washington’s eternal promise: the status quo will work ... it just needs more money,” he said in a statement. 

“Specifically, the status quo needs more money from an increased federal gas tax, which currently stands at 18.4 cents per gallon,” Lee continued. “But in reality, this eternal promise is little more than an empty promise. It ignores the structural flaws in the status quo that make our transportation system so expensive in the first place, ensuring states get less value back from the Highway Trust Fund than they put in.” 

Lawmakers are struggling to come up with a way to pay for an extension of the current transportation funding measure, which is set to expire on May 31. 

The tax has been the traditional source of transportation funding since the 1930s but has not been increased since 1993, and improvements in car fuel efficiency have greatly sapped its purchasing power in recent years. 

The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects, but the gas tax only brings in $34 billion annually at its current rate. 

Lawmakers have turned to other areas of the federal budget in recent years to close the $16 billion-per-year gap

Transportation advocates have pushed for an increase in the gas tax to solve the infrastructure funding problem, but lawmakers have been reluctant to ask drivers to pay more at the pump to help finance road projects. 

Supporters of increasing the gas tax decried Lee’s amendment as a roadblock in Congress’s quest to fix the transportation funding problem. 

“The trucking industry’s highest priority is the safe transportation of the nation’s goods. In order to do that, it is imperative that Congress insure the long-term health of the Highway Trust Fund and the federal-aid highway program, and anything that forecloses Congress’ options to do that is bad policy and should be opposed,” American Trucking Association President Bill Graves said in a statement. 

Lee has previously proposed eliminating the tax altogether in a move dubbed “devolution,” which would gradually eliminate the gas tax and transfer responsibility for transportation projects to state and local governments. 

The Utah senator cast his gas tax amendment Thursday as a much less radical alternative to the prior proposal to eliminate the fuel levy entirely. 

"Given the need for structural reform of our federal transportation policy, and given Washington’s penchant for ignoring this need, I’m introducing an amendment — Amendment #863 — that would bring some accountability and discipline to the system,” he said. 

"My amendment would simply change the number of votes needed to pass any future gas tax hikes in the Senate, from 51 to 61,” Lee continued. “Setting the vote threshold at 60 rather than 50 is a reasonable change to the current budget that would require Congress to think twice before charging the American people more at the pump."

The Department of Transportation has said that it will have to stop making payments to state governments for construction projects if Congress allows its Highway Trust Fund to run out of money. 

Transportation advocates have said that a shutdown would cost the nation thousands of jobs because May is typically the beginning of the busy summer construction period. 

—This story was updated at 9:30 p.m.