EDITORIAL: Short on time, or cash?

Bill Wilson / May 05, 2011

I’m trying to picture Aunt Samantha on a post-office bulletin board.

Let’s face it: When it comes to managing tight and reduced budgets, the woman of the household always finds a way to put food on the table. This is how the sticks lie in my nest, anyway. That’s why it is time to permanently retire Uncle Sam to the couch of American prosperity and pull in his significant other to get us through this time of American peril.

Of course, some of the ideas coming out of Congress would even have the eraser of Aunt Samantha’s money-managing pencil worn beyond its thin metal holder. Then there is the one that would instantly blow the pink end to bits. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) unveiled the product of his lead-writing workings via his report: “Path to Prosperity, Restoring America’s Promise.” However, instead of a clipper ship taking us to this lost promise land, it will be a few pieces of wood and a sail made out of recycled cloth. Ryan is calling for almost $6 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years.

The Wisconsinite is simply taking a cheese grater to transportation spending. On top of proposing a 31% budget cut for roads, bridges and rail, his outline suggests that the Highway Trust Fund not receive any additional revenues from either a user-fee increase or general-fund transfer, and that the surface transportation reauthorization bill will have to reflect these reduced funding levels. That translates into a six-year bill worth about $167 billion.

For the most part, the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee is standing behind its shredding-happy brother, saying the only long-term highway bill that will make it beyond its doors is one that relies on gas-tax receipts as the main funding source. Currently they are estimating a six-year funding package worth about $250 billion. However, if the price of gas goes well into the $6-a-gal range, which in a couple of years looks to be a certainty, then far fewer people will be pumping fossil fuels with any kind of regularity. I mean, here is a chunk of reality, folks: Chevy has reported selling 1,527 of its gas-snubbing Volt cars, which could get up to 1,000 miles per fill-up. So let’s assume the best the House can produce is $200 billion during the underachieving life of the measure.

The Senate has not been as transparent about its plans for the highway industry. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) wants to follow the orders of President Barack Obama, who has proposed a six-year, $556 billion highway bill, to the T, or at least be as close as R or S. However, a few weeks ago Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) came out and said he would like to see a two-year bill work its way through the Senate—one that looks to guarantee funding levels at more than $40 billion a year. Threats of a shortened funding plan have been waved before, and in the past I have offered long-winded explanations as to why they are a bad idea . . . until now.

It is clear that this industry does not want to lose the financial cushion (actually it is more like a king-size mattress) of a 72-month measure. However, Washington is now recruiting that attitude calling for the tight bean counting of Aunt Samantha, and if my bread-and-butter is going to come in smaller portions I would rather cut the years than the amount of funding. If Congress seems content with riding on the fumes of the gas tax, and if the Senate can guarantee that $80+ billion through 2013, then we might want to consider taking it and waiting for something better to come around. After all, it’s not like we are crying uncle.

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