House rejects calls to sharply cut gas taxes

The House rejected an amendment that called for sharply reducing the 18.4-cents-per-gallon gas tax that is traditionally used to pay for federal transportation projects and transferring authority for most infrastructure projects to states. 

The nonbinding amendment, from Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), sought to establish a “sense of Congress” that lawmakers think the gas tax should be reduced by about 15 cents to allow states to play a bigger role in transportation funding. The amendment was defeated in an 118-310 vote on Wednesday evening. 

{mosads}The proposal was one of 81 amendments to a new $325 billion highway bill being considered on Wednesday by the Republican-led House. It would not have created a new law requiring the gas tax to be eliminated, but it would have put lawmakers on record on the idea of abandoning the current federal transportation funding system.

DeSantis, who is running for Senate, said states and localities should have more control over revenue from the gas tax so they can directly manage the funds for construction projects.

“I’m trying to figure why we would want to perpetuate a system that’s not fiscally sustainable and puts more power in Washington,” he said.

But Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, called the suggestion “poppycock” that states could handle transportation projects without any coordination with the federal government.

“We need more investment in the national system,” DeFazio said.

The concept of rolling back the gas tax, 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. The proposal typically calls for reducing the gas tax to 3.7 cents per gallon and replacing current congressional appropriations with block grants that states would compete for.

“It is critical for Congress to phase down the federal gas and diesel taxes and empower the states to tax and regulate their highway and infrastructure projects,” DeSantis’s amendment said. 

“Each state is best capable of determining the needs of the state and acting on those needs,” the amendment continued. “The federal role in highway transportation has, over time, usurped the role of the states by taxing motor fuels used in the States and then distributing the proceeds to the states based on the perceptions of the Federal Government on what is best for the states.”  

Proposals to roll back the federal gas tax have been offered before, but it has usually been opposed by Democrats and Republican leaders in both chambers, who have sought to quash talk of devolution during transportation funding debates this year, as it was on Wednesday evening. 

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

The House’s rejection of the anti-gas tax amendment came after lawmakers on the House Rules panel blocked a vote on a separate proposal to increase the gas tax by 15 cents. 

The gas tax debate in the House 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 Nov. 20, 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. Lawmakers have filled the gap in recent years by turning to other parts of the federal budget, but state governments have complained about the effect of temporary patches on construction planning. 

Transportation advocates have for 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, even as they have passed multiple transportation bills over the years that keep the gas tax in place at its current rate. Republicans in particular have ruled out an increase, arguing that it would constituent a tax hike.  

—Cristina Marcos contributed to this report.  

Tags Devolution Gas Tax Highway bill Highway Trust Fund MAP-21 Reauthorization Peter DeFazio Ron DeSantis STRR Act Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015

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