Wednesday, June 22, 2005

We are nearing the end of June, and delays continue on legislation to reauthorize the federal highway program. Not only have we missed the beginning of construction season (an especially large concern in Northern states), but millions of contractors, laborers, and pieces of machinery continue to sit idle while projects remain unfunded and uncertain. Why?

To begin with, in a Statement of Administrative Position, President Bush in March opposed the myriad set-asides and so-called “high-priority” projects that litter the legislation, have little to do with building and refitting critical highway infrastructure and are inserted for political pork. Bicycle paths, covered bridge restoration and programs designed to encourage people to walk to work are just a few examples of pork, and there are many, many more.

Also, the construction companies that have been contracted to build and refit our highways, or rather their trade associations, have been lobbying incredibly hard for, what else, more money.

Mr. Bush, instead of capitulating to external pressure from the Beltway bandit lobbying crowd and high-ranking senators, has thrown down the gauntlet. After twice renegotiating upward from his original cutoff of $256 billion, he has threatened to veto any federal highway reauthorization that calls for appropriating more than $283.9 billion.

Pork-barrel politicians and powerful construction interests are greedily squealing for more money, and are unleashing a new twist on an old argument to get their way.

The federal highway-funding program is grossly unequal in its spoils. States act as federal tax collectors (via gas taxes paid at the pump), send this money to the federal government, which then doles the money back out to the states.

However, from the beginning there has been a fundamental problem: Some states act as “donors,” others as “donees.” Simply put, a state that collects a large amount in gas taxes but has few federally funded highways acts as donor to a state heavily developed with federal highways but short on its gas taxes. Using the ratio of 1.00, any state whose return ratio on federal taxes is less than 1.00 is considered a donor state; any state with a return ratio greater than 1.00 is a donee.

This donor-donee issue causes great consternation. Ask any organization that works closely with state legislators how its members feel about the donor-donee issue. What you will hear is based upon the clear splits along the donor-donee lines.

Now, unless Congress, the states, the public and every lobbyist from Washington, D.C., to Anchorage, Alaska, change their entire outlook on national highway funding, the donor-donee issue will not be resolved any time soon.

Some members of Congress, with Jeffersonian principles rooted firmly in their spines, have bravely introduced legislation to devolve highway funding entirely back to the states.

However, as Senate debate continues over the reauthorization legislation, some members hold this fix hostage and demanding the president raise his limit again. That is, to initiate devolution to the states and restore state autonomy for funding, they ask for more federal money — find the logic there.

Two questions remain: First, why has the president decided to end the debate at $283.9 billion? Because enough is enough. The $284 billion, according the Office of Management and Budget, itself exceeds the $256 billion that would be necessary to follow through on essential federal highway projects. Further, that includes about 4,000 earmarks and set-asides for projects having nothing to do with critical infrastructure.

Secondly, where does it end? If the president backs off the $284 billion, how much more will it take to satisfy the lobbyists’ appetite for pork — $500 billion? A trillion?

If the president does not hold this line, there will be no end to the spending of taxpayers’ money and no incentive for states to find creative avenues for new technology and enhanced infrastructure through public private partnerships.

The Senate should stop trying to hogtie the president’s limitation on spending to their pork barrel projects. The country cannot afford another extension of the existing legislation and certainly cannot afford to waste an entire construction season.

As for the highway lobbying community: Stop trying to broker a deal between the Senate and the president. The impasse being created is taking us down a road to nowhere.

Duane Parde is the executive director of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

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