In Congress, the House and Senate Transportation Committees are spinning out of control. Unfortunately, it’s American taxpayers that are getting hit head-on.
The man behind the swerving wheel is House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska). Setting the stage for a clash with President Bush and his own party leadership, Chairman Young wants to push through a 5.4 cent per gallon increase in federal gas taxes to help pay for a massive $375 billion highway bill.
The current federal tax is 18.4 cents per gallon, and the state taxes average just over 22 cents according to the Federal Highway Administration . Taxpayers pay over $50 billion annually in taxes on, which works out to an annual gas tax of $660 for the average U.S. family. According to an analysis by CSE chief economist Dr. Wayne Brough, if Congress adopts the Transportation Chair’s proposal of a tax increase of 5.4 cents, American families would see their tax burden increase by $135, for a total gas tax of almost $800 annually.
These gas tax revenues go to fund the Highway Trust Fund, which was created in 1956 to ensure the revenues from the gas tax were reserved for highway and transportation projects. Lately, though, with the flat economy, Highway Trust Fund revenues are actually down a bit. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the fund income will be $33.4 billion in 2003. That’s down about $6 billion from 1999 and up only about a billion dollars over last year.
So, Rep. Young actually has a lot of support in his drive for new taxes. Unbelievably, even some Republicans are supporting this idea. In the House, Members of Congress line up like hungry Texans at a barbeque to join Chairman Young’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. That’s because Committee members get to serve themselves extra large helpings of road pork. In fact, with 75 representatives serving on the panel, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is one of the largest Committees in the House. By way of comparison, the House Budget Committee only has 43 representatives. It’s clear that many members are more interested in spending money on roads than and they are in controlling government spending.
No wonder, then, that 74 out of 75 members on the committee support Don Young’s for new tax hikes. The only holdout is Jim DeMint (R-SC). Representative DeMint is a nothing less than a taxpayer hero. The amount of pressure being applied to Congressman DeMint must be incredible, but he dones’t have to worry about getting kicked off of the Committee next year. As a citizen legislator, he has limited himself to three terms in the House of Representatives and will step down next year to run for the Senate.
All of this jostling is especially important this year, because Congress needs to reauthorize the “Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century”, which expires on September 30, 2003. This legislation establishes spending priorities for highway and transportation projects, and always has been a political battleground as lawmakers compete for their share of federal transportation dollars. In his budget plan, President Bush proposes $29.3 billion in federal highway spending, but that is clearly not enough for insatiable Transportation Committee members. Hence, Chairman Young’s bid to increase the federal gas tax so that Congress will have more money to spend on road pork. Even worse, Rep. Young advocates indexing the tax for inflation, creating an automatic tax hike every year.
And it’s not just the House, the Senate is just as bad or worse. A group of Senators led by Christopher Bond (R-MO) is going to try and add $65 billion and funding for highways and mass transit to the budget resolution this week. Senator Bond’s proposal has over 60 co-sponsors, which makes it bulletproof in the Senate.
This is messier than an I-95 work zone. Congress needs to hand more of the road building business back to the states and local communities where it belongs. Why should taxpayers in Arkansas pay for roads and bridges in California? Additionally, Congress should look at new ways of paying for roads, such as private toll roads where the users of the road pay for its construction and operation. Finally, Congress should stop plowing subsidies into the failed Amtrak railroad.
But, first and foremost, no new taxes! It is our hope that the Congressional Republican leadership, as well as President Bush, will stand by their no tax increase pledge and help kill Chairman Young’s plan. Otherwise, taxpayer interests will continue to be run flat over by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.