Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Better Idea: How About We Keep Our Own Money

Today's Tampa Tribune includes this commentary from the Washington Post regarding our federal gas taxes aka the Highway Trust Fund.
A major federal program is on desperate financial footing. It’s too important and popular to cut drastically. But a combination of changing social patterns, technological innovation and bad policy design has thrown its accounts far out of balance, and it has begun to eat into general spending that should go to other national priorities.
We all understand there is a funding issue and there are numerous reasons why as the commentary points out. However, the solution is NOT liberal Rep. Blumenauer's proposal to send more of our hard earned money to the bottomless spending pit of no accountability in DC. The solution is to devolve our gas taxes back to the states which is what Senator Mike Lee's Transportation Empower Act  will do. A simple Google search by the Washington Post certainly would have found Senator Lee's bill that:

  • Transfers almost all authority over federal highway and transit programs to the states over a five-year period
  • Lowers the federal gas tax to 3.7 cents from 18.4 cents over the same time period
  • During the five-year phase out, states will receive block grants that come with vastly fewer federal strings attached
States know their own unique transportation needs much better than anyone in DC. Because there is a federal funding issue, the states have already begun figuring out how to fund their own transportation projects - from their own taxes to toll roads to public-private partnerships, to private sector funding and solutions, etc.  States are innovating while the federal Highway Trust Fund becomes more bankrupt.
Highway Trust Fund is bankrupt
Looking at how we got in this fiscal mess serves as another good reason to empower states and allow them to keep their own gas taxes. Let's look historically at what the Feds have done to one of the largest buckets of our tax dollars in DC. The Highway Trust Fund was implemented in 1956 as a user fee to fund roads, highways and bridges and to build out the federal interstate system. Since then, the House Transportation Committee has grown to become the largest committee in the House. This big bucket of money has turned into pork barrel spending for wasteful projects, has politicized transportation projects and began diverting user fee gas taxes elsewhere. In addition, it has unequally distributed the funds across the states, like Florida. 

Florida has always been a donor state even when our population was exploding over the last decades. The state has historically only received between 70 and 80 cents back for every dollar we send to DC. Today we get back a bit more but Florida is still a donor state. 

Today at least 25%, and perhaps as high as 40%, of our federal road user fee gas taxes are now diverted elsewhere, mostly to transit and high cost rail systems but also to sidewalks, trails and bike paths. Instead of doing the fiscal due diligence for a new, separate long term, sustainable revenue source for mass transit, Congress simply did the easiest thing back in the 1983. Congress created the Mass Transit Account in 1983 funded by our user fee gas taxes and began mandating the diversion of dollars from the existing Highway Trust Fund to transit and other activities (sidewalks, bike paths…) The result of this? The Highway Trust Fund is now bankrupt. It has basically been bankrupted since 2007 when gas tax revenue did not cover spending. Since 2008, Congress began diverting tax dollars from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund. In 2010, $30 Billion was appropriated to the Highway Trust Fund because of mandates to fund transit.
Highway Trust Fund gas taxes diverted to non-highway projects
Throwing more money at the Federal level to perpetuate the problems and fiscal mess they have created is not the answer. In support of Senator Lee's bill to devolve the tax back to the states, this article from Heritage describes the benefits of getting the Feds out of the middle of our transportation funding:
Benefits of Empowering States
The policies in the Transportation Empowerment Act would directly benefit the motorists, truckers, and bus operators across the country that fund the highway program. Specifically, these bills would: 
  • Empower states to make transportation decisions. Ending the current Washington-centric approach would discourage pork-barrel spending from Congress and incentivize states to plan and fund their transportation priorities.
  • End cross-subsidies between states and modes of transportation. Motorists in South Dakota or Texas, for example, would no longer subsidize the commute of federal employees in Washington, D.C., or Manhattan residents. Instead, they would be free to spend on programs that improve mobility at home.
  • Reduce congestion, enhance mobility, and improve safety. Reform-minded state transportation officials would be free to deploy resources to modes that reduce congestion and enhance cost-effective mobility, engaging with the private sector for capital-intensive projects.
  • Force efficiencies in transit. Absent federal subsidies, states that still value and can support transit systems could continue this spending, but those that do not would be forced to re-evaluate their programs, consider alternate modes, or contract their transit operations out to the private sector.
Do you want your federal gas taxes raised 15 cents a gallon, to go who knows where and a good chance not to Florida, in this economic environment? Do you want your federal gas taxes indexed to inflation, basically on auto-pilot where no one can be held accountable if and when inflation comes roaring back? When was the last time the Feds spent our gas tax dollars efficiently, cost-effectively and fairly?

The interstate system is built out. It's beyond time for states to keep their own gas taxes and be empowered to determine their own transportation needs. It's time to get the Feds out!

Reject Rep. Blumenauer's proposal to send more money to DC. Support Senator Lee's Transportation Empowerment Act bill (S. 1702) and Rep. Tom Graves accompanying House bill (H.R. 3486) and empower the states.

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