Highways, Bridges and Roads

Gas-tax issue could be the next political fight

After watching a two-week shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, transportation advocates and congressional staffers are concerned that the federal gas tax could become the next confrontational issue that Democrats and Republicans push to the brink. 

The Senate and House are in the process of considering a long-term highway bill. Passing a short-term extension while they work out the details of a longer measure would normally be considered routine, but so was a short-term extension of FAA funding.

{mosads}That all changed July 23, when 4,000 FAA workers were furloughed for nearly two weeks as the House and Senate could not agree on a bill to extend the agency’s funding through Congress’s traditional August recess. 

The recent fracas over raising the debt ceiling also underscored the degree of partisan gridlock and brinksmanship in Washington.

With the chambers far apart on their proposals for a long-term highway bill, and transportation advocates in Washington still reeling from the FAA fight, at least one Democratic aide in the Senate expressed concern that congressional Republicans would attempt to use the gas tax as leverage in the fight over the competing transportation proposals.

“There’s widespread support to maintain the current rate, and there has never been serious objection in the past,” the aide said. “But with [Rep. John] Mica’s [R-Fla.] recent actions on the FAA bill, who knows whether House Republicans will once again compromise jobs and the economy to make a political point?”

Mica is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The bill that authorizes the gas tax to be collected, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) bill, is currently on its seventh short-term extension, which expires Sept. 30.

Extending the FAA authorization in increments became so routine that the agency reached 20 short-term extensions, before the recent standoff and subsequent shutdown. 

Some in the GOP, however, were skeptical that the gas tax would be at the center of a September showdown over the transportation bill.

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“It’s hard to speculate what will emerge as the big issue this fall,” a Republican aide said. “Anything is possible, but I’d be surprised if it turned out to be the gas tax.”

Environmental groups said Tuesday they were bracing for the worst, just in case. 

“The debt-ceiling debate looms large here,” Deron Lovaas, federal transportation policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said. “Anything involving taxation or spending could become an issue. I think everyone is watching [anti-tax activist Grover] Norquist and his group like hawks to see what they do next.”

Chris Prandoni of Americans for Tax Reform, a group founded by Norquist, said his group believes states should eventually be in charge of gas taxes and take care of their own roads, but he added that he did not think the votes were there to allow the federal gas tax to expire at September’s end, and that rolling it back so quickly might be disruptive. 

Instead, ATR is backing Mica’s bill. ATR believes that bill — like the recent deal to raise the debt limit — would get the ball rolling toward its eventual goal of reducing the scope of the federal government.

“We view the September 30 deadline as a chance to start a sort of education campaign,” Prandoni said. “Mica’s bill ensures that the [Highway Trust Fund] stays solvent, and gives us the amount of time we need to transition this to the states.”

Mica has proposed a six-year, $230 billion highway bill. He has pegged his proposal to the amount he says the gas tax currently brings into the trust fund.

The competing measure is sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The Democratic proposal is a two-year, $109 billion bill. 

The Laborers’ International Union of North America has promised a vigorous campaign during the congressional recess to build support for Boxer’s bill.

“In the debt-ceiling debate and in the [FAA] shutdown, some Republicans have shown they’re willing to put politics ahead of our economy and the livelihoods of working men and women,” union President Terry O’Sullivan said recently. “We will not let the highway bill be the next victim of that strategy. We need to show that America faces its challenges and doesn’t run away from them.”

Some transportation advocates have begun looking for alternative funding sources to increase transportation spending. A few have even called for increasing the gas tax, which is very unlikely in the current Washington environment. 

The gas tax is currently 18.4 cents per gallon, not including the additional local and state fees that vary across the country.

Jack Basso, chief operating officer of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said a halt in the collection of the gas tax would make the $30 million per day in sales taxes the FAA shutdown cost the federal government “look small.” 

The gas tax “brings in $100 million a day, so that’s a lot of money if this thing goes away,” he said.

Basso said the FAA shutdown made highway proponents “sit up and take notice” of the possibility there might be a fight to renew the gas tax, but he thought ultimately it would get done.

“I think we’ve got the word out that this does expire, and it needs to be addressed,” he said. “I’m of the mind that it will be addressed.”

Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.

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