'Truth in budgeting' sought for highways Pork or prudence? The transportation industry and its congressional allies want to prevent funds earmarked for roads and airports from being spent elsewhere.

April 15, 1996|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Fearing that federal budget-cutters are headed their way, the transportation industry and its allies in Congress are making a bold move this week to put billions of dollars in highway and airport construction money beyond the penny-pinchers' reach.

The House is set to vote Wednesday on a bill to free the $30 billion a year collected in gasoline taxes and other user fees from the budget process so it can all be funneled directly to transportation projects.

The bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Bud Shuster, who, as chairman of the House Transportation Committee would gain broad new authority over how this money is spent, describes the effort as a crusade for "truth in budgeting."

The Pennsylvania Republican says he wants to make sure that federal taxes collected from motorists and airline ticket buyers are used for their rightful purpose -- improving and repairing the nation's crumbling infrastructure -- instead of financing unrelated programs or being pocketed to pay down the deficit.

"This is a huge fraud on the American traveling public" if the money is diverted to other purposes, Mr. Shuster testified last month to the House Budget Committee. "It's the kind of budget shenanigans that make Americans cynical about government."

But leaders of the Republican budget-balancing crowd -- as well as the Clinton administration, anti-tax groups and even Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan -- are aghast at what they consid-er a return to the bad old days of profligate spending on pork-barrel goodies.

"The $20 billion-a-year Highway Trust Fund is the biggest nondefense pork-barrel program, probably in the world," said Ronald D. Utt, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, who argues that absolving transportation spending "from making any sacrifices in the name of fiscal restraint" runs counter to the Republican drive to shrink the federal government.

The conflict illustrates how difficult it is for hard-line Republican budget-cutters at the helm of Congress to change the culture of an institution where a member's individual effectiveness is often measured by how much bacon he or she brings home.

"This proposal would make a shell game of the budget, scuttle efforts to balance the budget and let one single area of federal spending run amok," Rep. John R. Kasich of Ohio, Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, wrote in the Washington Post last weekend.

Transportation projects now must run the same budget gantlet as nearly all other categories of spending. They must compete with other programs for scarce federal dollars. In most years, the federal government spends as much or more on transportation as it takes in from gas taxes and user fees. But in the seven-year balanced budget plan passed by the Republican-led Congress last year, transportation spending would fall by up to 20 percent by 2002. Leftover transportation tax money would go elsewhere.

Mr. Shuster's bill would rescue transportation projects by taking the trust funds collected in their name out of the general budget pot. He also wants $30 billion in interest that the federal government technically owes to the transportation trust funds for transportation money borrowed for other purposes two decades ago.

"This is what was intended 40 years ago when this program was created to build and maintain a national highway system," said William D. Toohey Jr., spokesman for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.

Without protection, Mr. Toohey said, a maintenance program that already can't keep up with the need for safety and modernization improvements would be subject to "very, very significant cuts."

"That argument sounds good, but it's just a ruse to increase our national debt," said Dan Kreske, a lobbyist for Citizens Against Government Waste.

Yet more than 200 House members of both parties are co-sponsoring the measure, including a big chunk of the supposedly tight-fisted Republican freshmen.

"It was an easy call for me; I've never believed that user fees collected for one purpose should be diverted to something else," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican freshman from Baltimore County.

Mr. Ehrlich and Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican who also supports the bill, acknowledge that they have a personal interest beyond the principle involved. Both figure that Maryland might have an easier time getting money for harbor dredging and waterway improvement projects if the transportation funds can be spent only for their designated purpose.

User-fee money collected for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund and the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund would be protected under the Shuster bill, along with the much larger Highway and Airport trust funds.

"I don't want to sound like a pawn of the highway lobby, but I think this will mean I'd have a little more flexibility to do some of the projects I'd like to do," Mr. Gilchrest said. "If we do them now, we would save money in the future."

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