Heritage Action scoring bill to phase out the gas tax

Heritage Action scoring bill to phase out the gas tax
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The conservative Heritage Action group said Thursday that it plans to keep track of lawmakers who cosponsor a bill that would gradually eliminate the gas tax that is used to pay for federal transportation projects.

The measure, which is sponsored by Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeGOP senator compares Mueller report's obstruction findings to 'Pinocchio' in 'Shrek 3' Dems sound alarm over top DOJ nominee Restore Pell Grant eligibility to people in prison MORE (R-Utah) and Rep. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisGOP leaders dead set against Roy Moore in Alabama Workers find 27 possible graves near Florida's oldest reform school Trump administration renews interest in Florida offshore drilling: report MORE (R-Fla.), would lower the gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon to 3.7 cents in five years.

During the same time period, the bill, known as the Transportation Empowerment Act (TEA), would transfer authority over federal highways and transit programs to states and replace current congressional appropriations with block grants.

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The concept, commonly referred to by transportation observers as “devolution,” is popular with staunch conservatives who argue that development of road and transit infrastructure should be left up to states.

Heritage Action said Wednesday that the measure to phase out the gas tax would prevent future bailouts of the Department of Transportation's Highway Trust Fund, which is currently set to run out of money at the end of the month. 

"The Transportation Empowerment Act would empower states by allowing them to keep and control their gasoline tax revenues, set their infrastructure priorities, control their transportation decisions, and partner with the private sector to meet local needs," the group said. 

"The legislation would solve myriad problems, not the least of which is the flawed dynamic between the federal government and the states with regard to how federal gas tax dollars are spent," Heritage Action continued. "The states and private sector have proven more efficient users of taxpayer money, while the federal government through the Highway Trust Fund has wasted an unjustifiable amount of money through inefficiency, burdensome regulations, and distracting politicization — not to mention paying for the pet projects of lawmakers and special interests." 

The push for the devolution measure comes as lawmakers are grappling with a shortfall in transportation spending that is estimated to be about $16 billion per year.

The current transportation funding legislation, which is set to expire on July 31, includes about $50 billion in annual spending on road and transit projects. The 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax only brings in about $34 billion per year, however. 

Lawmakers have filled the gap in recent years by turning to other parts of the federal budget, but they could only cobble together a two-month extension in May that is now scheduled to expire at the end of the month. 

Transportation advocates have pushed for a gas tax increase to pay for a longer infrastructure measure. They point out the federal gas tax has not been increased, or even indexed to inflation, since 1993.

Lawmakers have been reluctant to ask drivers to pay more at the pump, and Republicans in particular have ruled out an increase this year. 

Lee has offered the proposal to eliminate the federal gas tax before, but it has been opposed by Democrats and Republican leaders in both chambers who have sought to quash talk of devolution during transportation funding debates this year. 

Opponents of the proposal to eliminate the federal gas tax typically argue that the federal government is best suited to handle transportation infrastructure that runs between states, like highways.

Heritage Action offered a starkly different take on Wednesday. 

"The original purpose of the HTF was to construct the interstate highway system, which was largely complete in the 1980s," the group said. "But since then, Congresses — lobbied by special interests — have broadened its mission to cover 'transit, environmental mitigation, ferry boats, bicycle paths, and nature trails,” which do not benefit those who pay for the program.

"The Transportation Empowerment Act would allow each state to keep their funds and use them in ways they deem appropriate," Heritage Action continued. "It would provide states relief from federal regulations so that they could put local priorities first and fund projects that provide congestion relief, capacity expansion, and enhanced mobility."