Eric Davis: Vermont needs reliable highway funding

On most issues, Gov. Shumlin would not see eye-to-eye with Robert Bentley, the conservative Republican governor of Alabama. Yet, last week Govs. Shumlin and Bentley appeared together before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Bentley and Shumlin, speaking on behalf of their colleagues in the National Governors Association, urged Congress to pass a multi-year extension of the federal highway trust fund.
The governors said that most states plan their highway and other transportation programs over a five- or six-year period. Congress’s recent practice of funding the trust fund for only six months at a time has not provided the states the predictability they need to plan their highway maintenance, construction and other transportation programs.
The federal highway trust fund is supported by a tax of 18.3 cents per gallon of gasoline. In recent years, new fuel-efficient cars have replaced older vehicles, and hybrid and electric cars have become a larger part of the mix. The volume of gasoline sold has not generated the tax revenue needed to keep the trust fund sufficiently full to provide the federal grants on which the states are relying, along with their own state fuel tax revenues, to meet their transportation plans.
The latest short-term fix for the highway trust fund, which Congress cobbled together just before it adjourned last December, depends on accounting maneuvers related to accelerated collection of some business taxes. However, this fix expires in May, so a longer-term solution to transportation funding needs to be enacted within the next four months.
Transportation funding is a good issue to test the ability of the new Republican-majority Congress to be able to govern effectively. As Govs. Shumlin and Bentley told the Senate committee, providing a steady and predictable stream of money to the states for their highway and transportation programs is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue, but a national issue.
Several senior Republican senators have said that an increase in the federal gasoline tax of between 10 and 15 cents a gallon, to be phased in over several years, would provide the trust fund with enough revenue to support a steady stream of grants to the states over a five- to six-year period. Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah, John Thune of South Dakota, and Bob Corker of Tennessee have all come out in support of such a measure. While they are not enthusiastic about raising any tax, they say there is no realistic alternative to respond to the changes in the vehicle mix and to provide the states with some funding certainty over a multi-year period. The senators also noted that recent declines in the price of gasoline would make the tax increase more palatable to the American public.
Whether or not Congress can enact a plan like this in the next few months will depend on the Republican leadership’s ability to overcome members of the GOP’s “hell-no” caucuses in both the House and the Senate.
In the House, Speaker John Boehner will most likely need Democratic votes to pass a transportation funding bill. A fairly substantial minority of House Republicans, probably ranging from 50 to 60 members, will vote “no” to express their implacable opposition to any revenue increases.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will also need Democratic votes, especially if populist conservatives such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas decide to filibuster a gas tax increase. Republican senators thinking of running for president will not want to give their opponents in early primary and caucus states any opening to attack them for voting in favor of increased federal revenue, even if that revenue is for a program endorsed by both Democratic and Republican governors.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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