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Mica is “Pretty Confident” That New Rules Won’t Starve Highway Trust Fund

3:37 PM EST on January 11, 2011

The Journal of Commerce reported yesterday that the House Transportation Committee chair, Rep. John Mica (R-FL), is “’pretty confident’ in the assurances he has received in talks with House leaders” that recent changes to House rules wouldn’t jeopardize Highway Trust Fund spending.

Mica says the new rules are just trying to bring trust fund expenditures back into balance with revenues. Photo courtesy of Rep. John Mica's office.

The new rules break the previous assurance that the full balance of the fund will be spent out every year in accordance with the SAFETEA-LU authorization. But according to the Journal article, Mica “said he has a clear understanding from House leaders that changes to future Highway Trust Fund legislation will not use trust fund receipts to offset other types of federal spending.”

It’s clear that trust fund money can’t be used for other line items. But the new rules do appear to allow the trust fund balance to offset those other line items by masking the deficit.

Transportation Committee spokesperson Justin Harclerode told Streetsblog that they are simply trying to address the problem in recent years of having to supplement the highway trust fund with general fund money because the revenues weren’t enough to keep up with authorized spending levels. “We understand that the intent is not to spend less than what’s coming into trust fund, but also not to spend more,” Harclerode said.

“We’ll play close attention to what’s coming in to the trust fund and we’ll legislate accordingly,” he said.

Of course, that means that another shortfall in the highway trust fund revenue would lead to lower spending levels. Bike-ped advocates have already expressed their fear that their programs would be the first to go in the event that spending had to be slashed.

Transportation advocates have slammed the new rule as an attempt to mask deficits by showing high balances in the highway trust fund. Mica told the Journal that he acknowledges that possibility. "We were concerned," he said, "that some of the old practices of a shell game – you know, use trust fund monies to offset other spending – might be played, but I feel pretty confident both with the colloquy that we have and the understanding I have with leadership, and [Majority Leader Eric] Cantor in particular, that that won't happen."

Mica said Rules Committee chair David Dreier (R-CA) confirmed that the rule "makes no change in the manner in which highway, highway safety, motor carrier safety, and transit programs are currently funded."

Some stimulus programs, like TIGER, are still at risk, however, since the new rules specify that the highway trust fund should only be used for authorized programs, and TIGER doesn't appear in the last transportation authorization bill.

Mica also told the Journal that the change allows House members to offer amendments to reduce funding, but most insiders say that cuts are far more likely to come from the Transportation Committee or, even more likely, the Budget Committee, where Chair Paul Ryan has unprecedented power to set spending caps. As we reported before, the amendment process will be the last resort for House members trying to restore funding that had been cut.

Harclerode indicated that Rep. Mica will be looking to cut “wasteful spending,” consolidate programs, and attract private financing to supplement government funds.

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