Santorum backs plan to roll back gas taxes

Santorum backs plan to roll back gas taxes
© Greg Nash

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum is backing a plan to cut the 18.4 cents per gallon gas tax, which pays for most federal transportation projects, by about 15 cents. 

"We need to get the federal government out of this infrastructure business, other than vital economic highways," the former Pennsylvania senator said in response to a question about how road projects should be paid for in Tuesday night's preliminary Republican undercard presidential debate in Wisconsin. 

"It has been said that if we cut the gas tax to three to five cents and send the rest back to the states, and just take care of the federal infrastructure that's vital for our economy," he continued, "we don't need the federal government in the road business that it is today." 

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Santorum is the latest GOP candidate to endorse the concept of rolling back the gas tax, commonly referred to as “devolution.” He is joined by Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who both recently issued similar calls for the gas tax to be cut.   

The proposal to roll back the gas tax is popular with staunch conservatives, who argue that development of road and transit infrastructure should be left up to states. 

Most devolution proposals typically call for reducing the gas tax to 3.7 cents per gallon and replacing current congressional appropriations with block grants that states would compete for.

Lawmakers debated the idea of rolling back the federal gas tax during the House's consideration of a new $325 billion highway funding measure last week. 

The nonbinding Sense of Congress Amendment, which argued that the gas tax should be reduced to allow states to play a bigger role in transportation funding, was defeated in a 118-310 vote last Wednesday evening. 

The highway funding measure that was approved by the House last week reauthorizes the collection of the gas tax at its current rate until 2021. The measure calls for spending $261 billion on highways and $55 billion on transit over six years, but only if Congress can come up with a way to pay for the final three years. 

Lawmakers are grappling with a transportation funding shortfall that is estimated to be $16 billion annually because the gas tax, which hasn't been increased since 1993, only brings in about $34 billion per year at its current level. The federal government traditionally spends about $50 billion on transportation projects, and infrastructure advocates say the amount is barely enough to maintain the nation's roads and transit systems.  

Congress has turned to other areas of the federal budget to close the gap in recent years, but they have not been able to pass a highway funding bill that lasts longer than two years since 2005.

Transportation advocates have pushed for a gas tax increase to help make up the difference, but Republicans have been reluctant to ask drivers to pay more at the pump. 

Republican leaders in both houses of Congress have resisted the devolution proposal, even as it has gained popularity with GOP presidential candidates. They argue that the federal government should have a role in transportation funding decisions, even though they opppose the idea of increasing the gas tax that has been supported by infrastructure advocates.