Canton Repository
February 26, 2004

Bush veto threat ties up highway funding bills

Copley Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON — Efforts to pass a multibillion-dollar federal transportation bill, which would create hundreds of thousands of new jobs across the country, are bumping into a threat from President Bush to veto any proposal that he considers fiscally irresponsible.

Administration officials warned that Bush will veto a $318 billion transportation plan approved by the Senate earlier this month, as well as any other version of the legislation that raises taxes or is not sufficiently funded through the gasoline-tax supported highway trust fund.

“We’re encouraging the House of Representatives to get as close to the Senate (spending) number as possible,” Gov. Bob Taft said after meeting with the Ohio congressional delegation Wednesday. The House has yet to approve a highway bill.

Given the Bush threat, Taft conceded it may be difficult for Congress to approve a bill as large as he would like.

Bush has proposed a $256 billion transportation package, which administration officials said is more responsible than competing versions.

In the House, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee plans to consider a $375 billion highway bill on Wednesday. That proposal, the most costly of the transportation bills, would raise the federal gasoline tax and index it to inflation to provide additional transportation funding.

Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Bethlehem Township, expressed frustration as he left the meeting with Taft.

“We’re all disappointed about the highway bill,” he said. “It’s not moving.”

Bush “thus far ... hasn’t gotten on board,” Regula added.

Few legislative proposals preserve or create more jobs than the transportation authorization, which apportions billions of dollars to states during a six-year period.

As a result, transportation bills traditionally enjoy robust support from governors, local officials, Congress and the construction industry.

On the other hand, critics attack the bills as exercises in pork-barrel spending and waste.

Even deficit-conscious lawmakers support bloated transportation bills because of the jobs they deliver for the home state, critics say.

Ronald Utt, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said there’s huge support for highway bills and little natural opposition.

“There is a very well-organized, long-term, sustained campaign by a combination of a huge and diverse industry, plus all their state departments of transportation and their governors, who say get us more money,” he said. “There’s really nobody on the other side of the issue saying spend less.”

Utt views the administration plan as the least wasteful among the three alternatives.

Bush has declared his opposition to larger highway spending proposals at a time when a growing number of conservatives are blaming him for big increases in federal spending during his administration. The federal budget deficit is projected to reach a record $521 billion.

The Bush plan would increase transportation spending by 17 percent more than the last six-year authorization, which totaled $218 billion. The Senate version increases spending by 46 percent, and the House bill by 72 percent.

In a letter to Bush, Taft urged the president to support the Senate bill, which he said would provide Ohio with a $3.1 billion increase in highway funding over six years.

“While your proposal to increase highway funding to a six-year level of $212 billion is commendable, it simply is not enough to address Ohio’s transportation needs,” Taft wrote.

Taft is enthusiastic about two provisions in the Senate version. A donor state provision, sponsored by Sen. George Voinovich, R-Cleveland, guarantees that every state including Ohio will get back at least 95 percent of the federal gasoline tax revenue it sends to the federal government.

Ohio gets back just 88 percent of the gas tax revenue it sends to Washington.

Another provision would shift revenues generated by the federal tax on the gasoline additive ethanol, also resulting in more federal highway aid to Ohio.

Increased transportation spending not only finances expansions and maintenance of highways, bridges and mass transit, it also creates millions of jobs, proponents say.

Without a bill similar to the Senate version, Ohio would have to delay planned transportation improvements, officials said. State Transportation Department spokesman Brian Cunningham said it’s hard to determine which projects would be affected, since construction plans are subject to change.

Ohio would receive $6.1 billion in total funding for highway projects under the president’s plan, $8.9 billion under the Senate bill and $9.3 billion in the House version, according to Ohio officials. Those figures do not include mass transit and other nonhighway spending in the legislation.

Ohio officials estimate that for every $1 billion in federal transportation aid, 28,000 construction or construction-related jobs are preserved or created in Ohio, Cunningham said.

The challenge of finding a solution acceptable to both the White House and Congress has led to suggestions that lawmakers may opt for a temporary two-year fix and put off the heavy lifting of a six-year plan until after the election.

“There is an attitude that maybe we ought to do a two-year bill and see how the economy turns around, see how the deficit is handled in the next couple of years and then address four more years after that,” said Rep. Bob Ney, R-St. Clairsville.

Ney sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the main committee that deals with transportation issues.