February 12, 1997
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In one of the marbled corridors of the Rayburn House Office Building, a group of angry Northeastern Democrats and Republicans gathered to declare they were ready for war.
"I would like . . . to thank the other members, primarily from the Northeast, for their efforts to fight what we believe is a completely unfair proposal -- regional warfare some call it -- by certain southern states," Rep. Susan Molinari (R-NY), member of the House Transportation Committee, said. "The one thing these groups have done is create a true spirit of bipartisanship out here in the hall."
Northeastern lawmakers are fighting attempts to change the formula by which the federal government allocates highway dollars. Currently, Northeastern states receive more money than they put into the trust fund while Southern and Western states get significantly less. It is not surprising then that Representatives from the South and West are proposing to change the formula so more money goes to their states and less into the general fund.
Inside the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing room, the Surface Transportation Subcommittee began considering how best to rewrite the nation's Federal infrastructure policy, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Act (ISTEA).
Emphasizing that, "there is a clear federal role in transportation," Chairman Bud Shuster (R-PA) opened the first set of hearings into ISTEA's contentious reauthorization. The first hearing addressed the three proposals to change the Federal law; Devolution, STEP 21 and ISTEA Works.
The group supporting Devolution has introduced the Transportation Empowerment Act of 1997, also known as Tea-2. House Budget Chairman John Kasich (R-OH) and Senator Connie Mack (R-FL) have championed the legislation that would reduce Federal regulation and funding of state transportation projects.
"The proposal would significantly scale back the federal highway program to a core interstate maintenance program and rescind all but two cents of the 14.4 cent fuel tax," Shuster said. "States would then make up the loss of federal funds through increases in their own state fuel taxes."
Rep. Kasich and Senator Mack testified on behalf of their legislation, but met with firm resistance from many of the top-ranking members of the committee.
"We are taxing people at the pump, taking that money and sending it to Washington, who then sends some of it back with burdensome regulation," Kasich told the committee. "When people pump their gas they should be paying taxes to fix their roads and that is what our proposal does. We may not pass it in this Congress, but we will pass it someday because it is the right thing to do."
Democrats were quick to attack the proposal.
"This devolution plan is the transportation program for 13th Century England. Fix the pothole in front of your castle and don't worry about the one in front of the castle next door," Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), ranking Democratic member of the full Committee said. "It could destroy our national transportation system."
Although Kasich and Mack were before the committee for an hour and a half, it was the other two proposals, Step 21 and ISTEA Works, that caused the most conflict. Step 21 would leave the basic structure of ISTEA intact but would dramatically alter the way the Federal program is funded. Currently, states are guaranteed 90 percent of the Federal Highway Trust Fund money that comes from taxes within their state. Proponents of Step 21 want to boost that percentage to 95 percent.
Under the current funding formulas, most states in the Northeast receive more in federal highway transportation dollars than they send to Washington. Step 21 has been proposed by members from the South and West that have received less than the amount they put in the trust fund.
"The question of distribution of the funds is one of fairness and what is truly in the Nation's best interest," Kentucky Governor Paul Patton, a supporter of Step 21, said. "The current distribution formula satisfies neither of these criteria."
The ISTEA Works coalition, supported mainly by members from the Northeast, supports the current system. ISTEA Works supporters say the devolution and Step 21 proposals do not take into account the infrastructure needs of a given area.
"Unlike some others who have testified before this Committee, I am not here to tell you that other states do not need or deserve more infrastructure funding," said New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman. "Nor am I here to tell you that New Jersey and the ISTEA Works states can afford to give up funding. What I am here to say is that the allocation of federal highway funds should be based on need. The bottom line is we are not a commonwealth of 50 nations, but we are one nation with a common wealth and common goals."
"Step 21 and Devolution do not take into consideration the national interest in maintaining a transportation system," said Nick Rahall (D-WV), ranking Democrat on the Surface Subcommittee. "We fought the Civil War and I thought we got over that state versus the Federal interest several decades ago."
Aside from the fundamental debate between a federal transportation policy and the devolution plan of Rep. Kasich and Senator Mack, the main debate before the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is over money. Lawmakers will be flexing their political muscle, and threatening "regional warfare," over different proposals. In an era where opportunities to obtain federal dollars for local projects are few and far between, this year's consideration of ISTEA will offer lawmakers a clear-cut chance to bring the money home.
The Committee plans on meeting on February 27 to consider the Clinton Administration's vision for ISTEA.