Legislation to Decimate the Federal Gas Tax Resurfaces

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has reintroduced a bill to cut the federal gas tax by 80 percent and give transportation authority to states, known as devolution. Also, House Transportation Chair Bill Shuster is promoting repatriation as a funding source.

3 minute read

June 16, 2015, 9:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

"The measure, which has been dubbed the Transportation Empowerment Act (TEA), would lower the gas tax that currently pays for most federal transportation projects from 18.4 cents per gallon to 3.7 cents in five years," writes Keith Laing of The Hill. He initially introduced the bill with Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) that went by the same name in November, 2013.

The bill has been filed in the House by Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.). "During the same time period, the bill would transfer authority over federal highways and transit programs to states and replace current congressional appropriations with block grants," writes Laing. However, neither the press release nor Laing indicate that the 14.7 cents of the 18.4 cent federal gas tax that would be eliminated would be transferred to the states - so states might assume authority over federal highways without additional funding.

As this writer sees it, that's the biggest flaw of the TEA, and it needn't be that way. A 1997 U.S. General Accounting Office evaluation of an earlier version of the Transportation Empowerment Act was based on an alternative option:

GAO's analysis is dependent on the assumptions inherent in TEA 2, such as that all states increase their state gas tax by the same amount that the federal tax is decreased.

But that does not appear to be a problem for Lee and DeSantis as they explain in an op-ed in The Daily Signal, a newsletter of the conservative Heritage Foundation:

Today, drivers still pay the [federal gas] tax, but politicians redirect portions of the highway fund for bike lanes and walking paths and public transit systems in certain cities. Meanwhile, partisan giveaways to special interests and bureaucratic skimming artificially inflate the cost of new infrastructure projects by as much as 20 percent.

Lee and DeSantis add that the 3.7 cents "would still collect enough revenue to maintain existing inter-state highways, while leaving state and local governments free now to focus on their own intra-state infrastructure needs."

The bill numbers are unchanged: S. 1702 and H.R. 3486. As of June 15, bill trackers continue to show versions under the 113th Congress rather than 114th Congress.

Another funding option took on more relevance after receiving the endorsement of the chair of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

"Republican Congressman Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania said [June 9] that he thinks the funding idea that has the strongest chance of making it through Congress is what some senators call 'repatriation'," writes Tasnim Shamma of WABE, as proposed by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky), described here recently.

It's the idea of lowering corporate tax rates [PDF] in hopes that American companies would move their money out of offshore accounts and back to the U.S.

"I like any idea that can fund the transportation system that's passable, that's possible," Shuster says. "Rand Paul and Barbara Boxer are opting for a [repatriation] bill. And if you got those two from completely different parts of the ideological spectrum coming together, then something's going to happen, I believe." 

"But the plan does have critics," writes Shamma. "Last summer, Thomas Barthold, chief of staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation, wrote in a letter [PDF] to Sen. Orrin Hatch that repatriation could cost the federal government $95.8 billion in lost revenue over a 10-year period."

Wednesday, June 10, 2015 in The Hill

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