Dem lawmaker slams ‘shameful’ GOP highway patch

A Democratic House member who has pushed to increase the federal gas tax to help pay for transportation projects criticized House Republicans on Wednesday for moving to temporarily patch the nation’s infrastructure fund. 

House Republicans plan to vote Wednesday afternoon on an approximately $8 billion highway patch that would extend federal transportation spending until December.

Lawmakers face a July 31 deadline to keep funds flowing for highwway projects.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said in an interview with The Hill that the GOP highway patch would do little more than kick the can down the road, and argued that lawmakers should be focusing on crafting a long-term solution. 

{mosads}”We are in exactly the same spot we were in a year ago,” he said, referencing a transportation funding battle last summer that ended with Congress passing an eight-month extension. 

“It’s not that much different than where we were two years ago,” Blumenauer continued in a nod to the two-year, $109 billion bill that was passed in 2012 when transportation advocates were pushing for a five- or six-year measure. 

Blumenauer has introduced legislation that would nearly double the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax that is traditionally used to pay for federal transportation projects. 

Blumenauer’s bill would increase the gas tax by 15 cents, matching a proposal that was included in the 2011 Simpson-Bowles budget reform recommendations. 

The legislation would result in drivers paying an extra 33.4 cents per gallon on their purchases, in addition to state taxes. 

The Oregon lawmaker said Wednesday that the idea of increasing the gas tax has won rare consensus from business and labor unions, as well as truckers, AAA and transit groups. 

“Our legislation has the broadest basis of support among any of the proposals that are out there,” he said. “It’s remarkable that people can’t take yes for an answer.” 

Lawmakers are scrambling to prevent an interruption in the nation’s transportation spending with Wednesday’s vote because the Department of Transportation has said its Highway Trust Fund will dip below a mandatory critical level of $4 billion at the end of the month. The agency has said crossing that threshold will necessitate a cut-back on payments to state and local governments. 

GOP leaders in the House are proposing a package that relies on $3 billion worth of savings from Transportation Security Administration fees and $5 billion in tax compliance measures to road projects through Dec. 18. 

The Senate, meanwhile, has worked on a longer, six-year, $275 billion transportation funding measure, but lawmakers in the upper chamber have not yet revealed how their legislation would be paid for.

Congress has been grappling since 2005 with a transportation funding shortfall that is estimated to be about $16 billion per year, and lawmakers have not passed a transportation bill that lasts longer than two years during that span. 

The 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax has been the main source of transportation funding for decades, but the tax has not been increased since 1993 and more fuel-efficient cars have sapped its buying power.

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

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated it will take about $100 billion, in addition to the gas tax revenue, to pay for a six-year transportation funding bill.

Unable to come up with enough money to pay the bill for a long-term highway measure, lawmakers have turned to other areas of the federal budget to close the transportation funding gap in recent years. 

Blumenauer said Wednesday that the resulting temporary fixes are preventing states from completing badly needed construction projects. 

“We’re not a reliable partner,” he said. “Dozens of projects all over the country are being suspended because of this cloud.” 

Blumenauer and other transportation advocates have pushed for a gas tax increase to pay for a long-term transportation bill as gas prices dipped to record lows at the beginning of this year, but Republican lawmakers have ruled out a tax hike

The Obama administration has proposed a measure that calls for spending $478 billion over the next six years on the nation’s roads and bridges, but lawmakers have largely ignored the suggestion. 

The Obama plan, known as the GROW AMERICA Act, would supplement gas tax revenue with a process known as “repatriation,” which would tax corporate profits being held overseas at a 14 percent rate.

Republicans have said they are open to the president’s repatriation idea, but they have said the taxes should be collected at a lower rate and on a voluntary basis in the form of a “tax holiday” for companies that return profits to domestic banks. 

Despite the opposition from Republicans, Blumenauer said Wednesday that increasing the gas tax is the most viable option for passing a long-term transportation bill in the near future. 

“Repatriation is clearly not a panacea,” he said. “It costs money. This isn’t free money. This is money that would’ve come into the treasury, and there is not consensus among Republicans about what to do with that repatriated money.” 

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has suggested that the GOP’s highway patch would allow lawmakers more time to craft a long-term transportation bill that is built around the repatriation idea, but Blumenauer said Wednesday that he is skeptical.

“Going into 2016, when half the Senate is running for president, do we really think we’re going to pass comprehensive [tax] reform in that environment, and then siphon some of the money off [for highways]?,” he said. 

Blumenauer said he would prefer to see President Obama set an Oct. 1 deadline for Congress to come up with a long-term solution to the transportation funding problem to ensure that they are no more temporary patches. 

“I think that by forcing action and making it happen now and not getting into the end of year, CR, holiday rush, we could do this in three to four months,” he said. “The transportation committee could come up with a six-year bill…they just need a number that is dedicated and big enough.” 

Blumenauer stopped short of saying that he would vote against the temporary patch that is expected to come to the floor of the House on Wednesday, however. 

“The problem is if we do not move something, we’re going to start laying people off,” he said. “This has real consequences. 

“It’s shameful, it’s embarrassing, it’s not good policy,” Blumenauer continued. “I can rationalize voting for it, but I will not go quietly into the night.” 

Tags DRIVE Act Earl Blumenauer Gas Tax Grow America Act Highway bill Highway Trust Fund MAP-21 Reauthorization Paul Ryan Repatriation

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