Hatch Sets Long-Term Bill as Goal But Cites Difficulties; Ryan Rules Out Gas Tax Hike

AASHTO Journal, 19 June 2015

The chairmen of Senate and House committees charged with finding revenue to pay for federal highway and transit programs both said they are seeking action to replenish the Highway Trust Fund beyond its July 31 expiration, but emphasized the difficulties of putting together a financing plan.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who chairs the Finance Committee, said he is committed to getting a long-term bill and said “the gold standard” would be one that would keep the programs funded up to six years.

At the House Ways and Means Committee, Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., flatly ruled out increasing federal motor fuel excise taxes to cover the costs of a transportation bill. He also said it was likely that Congress would opt for another transfer of general fund revenue this summer to keep the trust fund afloat.

 The former USDOT secretary at Senate Finance hearing.

Hatch, in a June 18 hearing, said: “As always, a long-term, bipartisan solution to this dilemma will be difficult to achieve and, some days, it almost seems out of reach. However, in the past, this committee has consistently stepped up to the plate to find ways to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent. I am confident that we can do so again.”

He added that “virtually everyone in Congress agrees that we need to get to the point where we are no longer facing a highway cliff every few months.”

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood repeatedly urged Hatch and other senators to avoid ruling out an increase in motor fuel taxes, which he said are user fees that people can support to generate the revenue needed to improve infrastructure.

But Ryan, whose committee met a day earlier, had already dismissed that option, as Hatch noted.

In his June 17 opening remarks at a Ways and Means hearing, Ryan said, “We need to find a real solution – a permanent solution” to cover Highway Trust Fund needs.

However, “I’m against raising the gas tax,” said Ryan. “There’s not much happening in this economy to help it grow, but lower gas prices is one of them. Working families have been struggling for years to get by. They’ve looked high and low for good-paying jobs. Their paychecks haven’t grown much at all. And now they’re finally catching a break. It would be downright unfair to take that away from them. So we are not raising gas taxes – plain and simple.”

Witnesses at the Ways and Means hearing included Bill Graves, CEO of the American Trucking Associations. Graves said his group supports raising motor fuel fees but that it would also support nearly any options Congress settles on to shore up the trust fund.

At Senate Finance, Hatch took note of a new push by Senate Democrats to try to get majority Republicans to set authorization hearings by certain dates and bring a final long-term bill to the floor next month.

So far in the Senate, only the Environment and Public Works Committee has announced plans to mark up the highway portion of the bill June 24. Other committees are responsible for transit and safety sections while Finance covers the funding. In the House, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has the full authorization bill and is yet to schedule a markup, while Ways and Means sets the revenue terms.

In a June 16 letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate Democrats said they want a final long-term bill on the Senate floor by July 20.

“Another temporary HTF patch would only perpetuate uncertainty, slow construction projects, and hamper economic development and hiring in all of our states,” they wrote. “To move forward, we must show the American people real progress on a robust, long-term transportation bill.”

But Hatch said that “any specific proposals or ideas on how to fund a long-term highway bill were noticeably absent from the letter … [and] neither party should point fingers and try to lay blame when it comes to the now-common practice of passing short-term highway extensions.”

He said he suspected that letter was “intended to have a political impact, not to actually lead to good policy.”

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, later told the June 18 hearing that with states already juggling their construction programs for this year the Highway Trust Fund should “not be used as a pawn” in political gamesmanship. “It is imperative that there be some continuity throughout the rest of the year,” he added.

This entry was posted in General News, Legislative / Political. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.