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Senate Finance Committee considers a trust fund stopgap, with long-term funding unclear

The Senate Finance Committee Thursday will take up a proposal from Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent through Dec. 31 with a $9 billion transfer from the general budget. The needed revenue would be raised by increasing the allowable tax on heavy trucks and four accounting maneuvers unrelated to transportation.

Chairman Wyden’s stopgap proposal would prevent the projected August insolvency of the nation’s key infrastructure fund and buy time until after the November elections, when Congress could consider a longer-term fix to the beleaguered trust fund.

Unfortunately, the proposal does not have bipartisan support. The top Republican on Senate Finance, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), has indicated he would like the trust fund fix to rely more on spending cuts. Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), who is co-sponsoring a proposal to raise the gas tax with Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), called the proposal “a complete sham” .

However, with the clock ticking toward an end of promised federal payments to states for their transportation spending, it is the only proposed stopgap on the table that would avoid idling thousands of workers and stalling key projects throughout the country. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, urged her colleagues on the Finance Committee to pass Wyden’s proposal. “I’m here to send an SOS to Congress because we are facing a transportation government shutdown,” Boxer today said at a press event.

Wyden’s proposal relies on accounting changes over ten years to amass the “savings” that would be transferred immediately from the general fund to cover the next several months of the trust fund outlays. The largest change ($3.7 billion) would require faster disbursement – and collection of taxes owed – on retirement savings of deceased account holders.

The only transportation-related source comes from raising the cap on the surcharge placed on especially heavy trucks, from $550 a year to $1,100. Set to take effect June 30, 2015, it would be the first change to the so-called heavy vehicle use tax since 1984 and is expected to raise up to $1.4 billion over the next 10 years.

Wyden told Transport Topics that he expects Republicans to offer several amendments at the committee hearing, set for 10 a.m. Thursday. “They indicated informally some rough ideas but that’s why we have opened the process,” Wyden said.

In the House, Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) of the Ways and Means Committee, with jurisdiction over the Highway Trust Fund, has said,  “There is no way tax hikes to pay for more spending will fly in the House.” Camp plans to mark up an extension of the transportation program and Highway Trust Fund after the July 4 Congressional recess.

In an encouraging bipartisan move, Senators Corker and Murphy last week proposed raising the gas tax 12 cents over two years, and offsetting that increase by making some current tax breaks permanent. Corker has said the offsets could allow other Republicans to support the proposal because it would not violate Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform pledge.

Any such long-term solution for transportation funding – which we at Transportation for America certainly support – would have to come through Wyden’s Finance Committee, presumably after a stopgap such as that on the table for tomorrow’s hearing.

Raising the gas tax also would have to pass muster with the White House. In comments Monday, Administration officials did not rule out a gas tax hike but reiterated that corporate tax reform is their preferred pay-for.

“The Administration has not proposed and has no plans to propose an increase in the gas tax,” said White House spokesman Matt Lehrich. “It is critical that we pass a [transportation] bill that not only avoids a short-term funding crisis but provides certainty and lays the groundwork for sustained economic growth. So we appreciate that members on both sides of the aisle continue to recognize the need for a long-term infrastructure bill, and we look forward to continuing to [work] with Congress to get this done.”

Here, you can read a Description of the Chairman’s Mark, and the Joint Commission on Taxation’s Score (JCT Score) of the proposal.