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Multi-year Highway Bill Facing Continued Uncertainties

Posted by Ken Orski on Thursday, October 8th, 2015

Innovation Newsbriefs
Vol. 26, No. 7 (update)

Those who have hoped to see an end to the seemingly endless series of short-term extensions and looked forward to a passage of the long- awaited multi-year transportation bill this year, may have to wait a bit longer. While the Senate has managed to pass its version of a six year bill (though only with enough funding for three years and employing questionable “pay-fors.”) the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee is still waiting to hear from the Ways and Means Committee concerning the funding of its proposed bill, an issue that threatens to delay committee markup and floor action past mid- October according to congressional sources. Both House and Senate transportation spokesmen are now publicly conceding that this will not leave enough time for the two sides to come to an agreement on a multi-year bill by the end of October when the current extension expires.

In other words, expect another temporary “patch.” .

Meanwhile, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has let it be known that the proposed international tax reform —and its tax on repatriated corporate earnings—should no longer be counted upon as a means of financing the House version of the six-year transportation bill. He and Senate Democrats including Chuck Schumer (D-NY) remain far apart as to how to implement the tax reform. Another obstacle is the opposition of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) who do not wish to see the tax on repatriated corporate earnings used as a source of revenue for a highway bill.

Ryan’s announcement means that his Ways and Mean Committee will now have to turn to the so-called “pay-fors” as a way to offset the spending. But coming up with six-years’ (or $90 billion) worth of pay-fors will be a monumental challenge. It also will place the House tax writers in an awkward position, given the House leaders earlier criticism of the Senate’s use of this approach as “budget gimmickry.”

Fortunately— at least from Chairman Ryan’s and his Ways and Means Committee’s perspective —the U.S. Department of Transportation announced on August 20 that the Highway Trust Fund is expected to remain solvent through the third quarter of Fiscal Year 2016. (www.transportation.gov/highway-trust-fund-ticker) . While Congress will still need to reauthorize the highway program by the end of October, the announcement takes the pressure off the lawmakers to reach agreement on a multi-year bill by the end of this year.

Industry lobbyists speculate that Congress might be tempted to take full advantage of the extended Trust Fund solvency to push the deadline for action on the long-term highway bill to the end of next summer—- or possibly delay action beyond the 2016 presidential election and into the next Congress. With no sign of a resolution to the long-term funding problem in sight, those speculations may contain more than a grain of truth.

C. Kenneth Orski is a public policy consultant and former principal of the Urban Mobility Corporation. He has worked professionally in the field of transportation for over 30 years, in both the public and private sector. He is editor and publisher of Innovation Newsbriefs, now in its 26th year of publication.

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