Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Senate Highway Trust Fund Bill Heads To Floor Vote

Feb 7: The Senate Finance Committee favorably reported legislation written by Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) that would make critical infrastructure investments across the country and create good-paying jobs by fully funding the Highway Trust Fund and the projects it supports [See WIMS 2/6/12]. Baucus's legislation, The Highway Investment, Job Creation and Economic Growth Act of 2012, was favorably reported by a count of 17 to 6, with one Senator voting present. Senator Baucus said, "This bill will make meaningful investments in transportation and will help create jobs in Montana and across the country.We need a highway system built for a 21st century economy. Our communities and businesses depend on effective transportation to help them grow, so we need to build and maintain highways to meet their needs, create jobs and improve our economy."
    Baucus's legislation would reauthorize and raise a total of $10.5 billion for the Highway Trust Fund, which contributes to projects that maintain the interstate highway system. Those projects ensure safety and mobility, sustain good-paying jobs, reduce traffic congestion, improve air quality and fund infrastructure projects of regional and national significance across the country.
    According to the Federal Highway Administration, every billion dollars invested in infrastructure creates or sustains nearly 35,000 jobs. With more than $10 billion of investments made, this bill could create or sustain 350,000 jobs. Infrastructure improvements also cut operating costs for businesses and allow them to grow. The Highway Trust Fund primarily relies on fuel excise taxes for its revenue, but because higher gas prices are keeping many families off the roads, receipts have dropped. Baucus's legislation would recoup those losses and reauthorize the trust fund to continue making critical investments.
    In explaining how the funding shortfall would be met, Senator Baucus said, "Thanks to input from Senator Hatch [Ranking Member] and other Committee members, the Chairman's Mark raises $3.7 billion for the Highway Trust Fund by moving money from the surplus Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund. It is important to note that this funding comes from the fuel tax, the primary funding source for the Highway Trust Fund. Where we cannot find more revenue from the Highway Trust Fund's usual funding sources, we have focused on funding that bears a nexus to transportation. We have therefore explored funding from transportation and energy sources. These include revenues from import tariffs on foreign cars. In cases like the gas guzzler tax, where we have to move money that currently goes into the General Fund of the Treasury, we have replenished the General Fund with new revenue.  Importantly, we do this by closing tax gaps rather than raising taxes.
    Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-UT), opposed the tax portion of the bill. Senator Hatch said, "I appreciate the effort to move a bipartisan proposal forward, but increasing taxes for more federal spending in this fragile economy doesn't create a sustainable foundation for our nation's transportation system. As such, I could not, in good faith, support this legislation out of committee. Furthermore, a better way forward is through bringing more revenue and more energy, as my substitute amendment would have accomplished. Accessing more American energy both on and offshore, and allowing the Keystone pipeline to move ahead is what our nation and our economy needs."

    Hatch filed amendments which he said would improve the two-year surface transportation bill, including an amendment that would have allowed the Keystone XL pipeline to move forward and that would have opened more American energy resources both on and off shore to fund the bill. That amendment was ruled nongermane and out of the scope of the Finance Committee's jurisdiction. A Hatch amendment to clarify that retirement accounts for Federal employees are treated the same as the retirement accounts of private citizens was included in the final mark that was reported from committee. According to IRS data, current and retired Federal employees owe more than $3.3 billion dollars in delinquent taxes. Hatch said, "It's past time federal employees, who aren't paying their taxes to the tune of $3.3 billion, are put on the same footing as every other American. If you break the law and don't pay your taxes, you should be penalized the same as everyone else, irrespective of where you work. I'm glad this common-sense amendment that will level the playing field for taxpayers across the country has been incorporates into this legislation."

    The Baucus's bill is a companion piece to the Moving Ahead for Progress for the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), and if favorably reported by the Finance Committee, it will be folded into the larger transportation bill for Senate debate. The Senate has developed the bipartisan MAP-21 proposal (S.1813), which would reauthorize surface transportation programs for two years at current funding levels [See WIMS 1/27/12]. 
    Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chairman of the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, released a statement on the Finance Committee's approval saying, "I am very pleased with the bipartisan vote in the Finance Committee. All systems are a go to pass a bill that will respond to our transportation needs and ensure job creation." The EPW Committee unanimously approved the two-year MAP-21, which maintains funding at current levels, on November 9, 2011 [See WIMS 11/10/11]. The Senate Finance Committee was the last committee of jurisdiction to act on their portion of the bill, which now heads to the full Senate for consideration. The current transportation authorization expires on March 31, 2012.
    Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), Ranking Member of the Senate EPW Committee applauded the markup of the financing provisions that will be included in S.1318. Senator Inhofe said, "With bipartisan support, the highway bill now moves to the Senate Floor. I appreciate the hard work of the Senate Finance Committee to come to a solution on how to fund our highway bill. Today's progress is the culmination of the bipartisan efforts we have already seen in the Banking and Environment and Public Works Committees, and I look forward to these efforts continuing on both sides of the aisle as we move forward. The next step is to get this bill to the floor as soon as possible so that we can proceed to conference. . ."
    Access a release from Senator Baucus (click here). Access a Committee statement from Senator Baucus (click here). Access a release from Senator Hatch and link to further information about his amendments (click here). Access the markup website for links to amendments and documents (click here). Access a 4-page MAP-21 bill summary (click here). Access the complete 600-page draft MAP-21 bill (click here). Access legislative details for S.1813 (click here). [#Transport]