Sen. Bob Corker Sets Up for Gas Tax Increase, Yanks the Football

Last week — Infrastructure Week, as it happens — Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) sent an urgent plea [PDF] to the leaders of the Environment and Public Works Committee the day before they unanimously approved the committee’s transportation reauthorization bill and sent it to the full Senate. Corker also sent his letter to the top members of the Finance Committee, who are actually in charge of finding funding for the bill, since the Highway Trust Fund alone comes $100 billion short.

Sen. Bob Corker can't quite get behind a gas tax hike, though his entire argument points in that direction. Photo: ##http://www.corker.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Images.Display&ImageGallery_id=a36a3e1a-0103-b714-2285-f8fb90d613e1##Office of Sen. Corker##
Sen. Bob Corker can’t quite get behind a gas tax hike, though his entire argument points in that direction. Photo: ##http://www.corker.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Images.Display&ImageGallery_id=a36a3e1a-0103-b714-2285-f8fb90d613e1##Office of Sen. Corker##

What Corker is calling for, in essence, is a pillaging of the U.S. budget to subsidize driving.

“In the last few years, Congress has allowed the [Highway Trust Fund] to become one of the largest budget gimmicks in the federal government,” he wrote.

So far so good — no one could argue with that. The gas tax is worth less than two-thirds of what it was worth in 1993, the last time it was raised, and Congress was forced to bail out the HTF three times between September 2008 and March 2010 — not to mention the $18.8 billion bailout in the form of MAP-21.

That’s a lot of taxpayer money spent on something that’s supposed to be funded with a user fee, which just about everyone in Washington holds as ideal. But when costs rise with inflation and revenues don’t, Congress has shoveled general funds into the HTF rather than buck up and raise the user fee.

Corker says these transfers make a mockery of the idea of “a self-sustaining ‘trust fund.’”

“These transfers are also causing highway program spending to look more and more like an appropriated discretionary program,” he wrote, “but without any of the budget oversight Congress can exercise over other spending bills.”

Another good point. Then he lays out two options for solving the problem: “(1) increasing dedicated HTF user fees to match spending levels, or (2) reducing HTF spending to match dedicated HTF revenues.” He quickly dispenses with the first: “It is my belief that reducing spending to current HTF revenue levels would be damaging to our nation’s infrastructure, competitiveness, and economic growth.” Good show, Senator! So that leaves us with increasing the user fee, correct?

Not so fast. “Another alternative that would at least make Congress accountable for the increased spending is to offset HTF spending that exceeds revenues by reducing other government spending by an equal amount,” he wrote.

Gah! Just call for an increase in the gas tax, will you? You’ve got some clout, Sen. Corker. You’re a respected member of the Banking Committee. You could join Sen. Tom Carper for a bipartisan push for a sane funding plan. Calling for taking money out of the general fund but offsetting it is basically a plan for cutting other programs. Congress spends far too much time agonizing over what to cut, and far too often lawmakers end up cutting cancer treatment programs and Head Start and meals on wheels. All to make sure drivers don’t have to pay their own way.

Maybe we should consider it progress. Two years ago, Corker wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post making a similar argument, only that time he only allowed for two options: reducing spending and offsetting it. This time, he at least acknowledges the possibility of raising revenues.

Corker says he “cannot support a highway reauthorization bill of any length that does not abide by these principles.” Maybe he could just stick with the “increasing user fees” angle and leave it at that?

  • Readers might also be interested in the May 15 NPR report on the HTF bailout, though the expert, Richard Geddes of Cornell, doesn’t call it a gimmick – lacking the flair (and perhaps disingenuity) of Corker:

    “Since 2008, Congress has moved $54 billion from the general fund to the trust fund. Richard Geddes, who directs Cornell University’s program in infrastructure policy, says that transfer may not seem like a big deal, but it kind of is (because) the more you move towards general fund revenues, the less user fees are paying for the cost of the roads.”

    http://www.npr.org/2014/05/15/312674249/700-000-jobs-are-at-stake-if-the-highway-trust-fund-goes-broke ]

    BTW, guess what solution Geddes favors?

    “Another idea, one that Geddes favors, is to charge highway users based on the miles they drive. For example, we’re used to paying per kilowatt hour prices for electricity per therm of natural gas, per gallon of water, per minute of cell phone use. So it’s a pretty common model.”

    Sadly, he confirms that Congress is headed towards another bailout. The alternative is too cut back on spending.

    Moderator Brian Naylor concludes: “The Congressional Budget Office estimates it would take $18 billion from general funds to bail out the highway trust fund next year alone.”
    Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

    My guess is that will be what’s done – the alternative is too cut back on spending as Congress won’t approve a gas tax increase, and the stakes are too high too cut back spending to match gas tax revenues.

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