NLC Opposes Change in Transportation Spending Rules

by Leslie Wollack 

House Republicans rejected efforts to dilute a proposed change in House rules that would make it easier to cut highway and transit spending levels during debate. The rules eliminate existing restrictions preventing the full House from cutting spending levels authorized by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which effectively guaranteed federal highway spending would rise each year.

The change will impact debate as Congress begins working on a multiyear comprehensive transportation bill and allows Congress to cut funding by setting spending below revenues. The House move does not impact Senate rules but does provide a path for Congress to use transprtation for deficit reduction. NLC joined other groups in opposing the change, which would take place in the context of adopted rules for the 112th Congress. 

"Under the proposed rule change, highway funding...would be treated as other general spending and therefore be subject to any attempts to reduce spending," said the letter signed by NLC and other local government groups. "It would permit funds paid by users into the Highway Trust Fund to be used to reduce the deficit rather than improve our transportation, which is contrary to the exclusive intent of the trust fund." 

Transportation projects require multi-year funding commitments and depend on stable and reliable funding from year to year, noted NLC, the National Association of Counties, the American Public Works Association and the National Association of County Engineers.

An amendment offered by Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) to soften the language was rejected by the House Republican Conference. Provision advocates say the new language would prevent shortfalls in the Highway Trust Fund when revenues lag behind surface transportation spending obligations, which has happened twice in recent years. Reduced revenues from federal fuel taxes forced the government to transfer billions in general revenues to cover federal highway and bridge programs. 

Federal surface transportation programs are financed by the federal fuel tax, which comes from individual drivers and is redistributed to the states based on a formula devised by Congress. The current transportation legislation does not allow Congressional appropriators to spend less than the total transportation dollars set by the House Transportation Committee. 

Transportation business groups warned that the proposed rule change would hurt transportation funding and treat taxpayers unfairly, in a letter signed by 21 transportation and business groups to the House Republican leadership.

The full House voted on the proposed rule change on January 5.

Legislation establishing federal surface transportation programs expired in September 2010. Incoming House Transportation Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) promised to begin working on a new bill as soon as the 112th Congress gets underway. 

The change in House rules governing transportation spending programs would allow Congress to cut transportation spending and not spend the full amounts of revenues collected in the Highway Trust Fund on highway and transit programs.