House Dem: Ditch estate tax repeal for road funding

The top-ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee said Tuesday that lawmakers should direct revenue from the government's estate tax toward the nation's crumbling infrastructure, rather than repealing the tax this week.

Lawmakers in the Republican-led House are scheduled to vote Thursday to repeal the estate tax in an attempt to coincide with the April 15 tax filing deadline. 

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said the money would be better spent on an extension of a transportation funding bill that is scheduled to expire on May 31. 

“Forty five days for today, temporary funding for the surface transportation trust fund expires, despite the fact that we have 140,000 bridges that need repair or replacement, 40 percent of the road surface needs substantial investment and a $70 billion backlog in our mass transit systems for a state of good repair,” DeFazio said in a speech on the House floor. 

“We need an unimaginable amount of money to fund that for the next five years,” DeFazio continued. “We need $120 billion. Where can we find $120 billion? Well, tomorrow, the Republicans are going to repeal the remains of the Estate Tax. That is that two one-hundredths of one percent of estates that are worth more than $10 million will pay no taxes when they leave that money to their kids. It costs $270 billion dollars to give that tax relief to two one-hundredths of one percent of estates of the families in this country.” 

The tax currently affects families with estates hovering around $11 million, with the rate coming in at 40 percent.

The GOP repeal measure would cost around $270 billion over a decade, but DeFazio said Republicans should put that money toward the transportation funding extension. 

“How about we use that money to rebuild the nation's infrastructure, put hundreds of thousands of people to work, benefit all of America with better roads, with safe bridges, with transit systems that don’t kill people because of their state of bad repair,” he said. “Even the wealthy would benefit from that except that they don’t use the system because they fly over it in their helicopters and they don't notice it from the back seat of their limousines."

The Department of Transportation has said that its Highway Trust Fund will run out of money in July if Congress does not reach a deal on an extension. 

Lawmakers in both parties have expressed a desire to prevent an interrupt in federal transportation funding, but they are struggling to come up with a way to pay for an extension of the measure.

The traditional source of transportation funding has been the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax. The tax has not been increased since 1993, however, and its buying power has been sapped by improvements in car fuel efficiency in recent years. 

Transportation advocates have pushed for an increase in the gas tax to pay for a new round of infrastructure spending, but lawmakers have been reluctant to ask drivers to pay more at the pump to help finance construction projects. 

DeFazio has proposed replacing the gas tax with a per-barrel tax on oil companies to fund federal transportation projects. 

The proposal was included in a measure that was filed in 2014 that was known as the Repeal and Rebuild Act that DeFazio said at the time would generate enough money to pay for a six-year, $324 billion transportation bill by eliminating the federal fuel tax in lieu of a $6.75 per-barrel levy on oil sales.  

-Bernie Becker contributed to this report.