|Finance Committee leaders plan a floor amendment to increase transportation bill funding above $284 billion. There is speculation that the boost could be $10 billion to $15 billion. But the White House has issued a veto threat if the final measures total exceeds $284 billion.|
Design firms, contractors and states, slogging through a 19-month delay, so far, in passing a new transportation bill, see the next milestone up ahead. The Senate could approve a multi-year measure in the week of May 9, when it returns from a one-week break. "It may take all week but I think they will," says Jack Basso, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials director of management and business development.
All parties are awaiting an expected floor amendment from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and the panels top Democrat, Max Baucus of Montana, to add funding to what now is a $284-billion bill.
Grassley and Baucus are not saying how big a hike they will propose, but there is speculation it could be $10 billion to $15 billion. The lawmakers insist they will provide offsetting revenue so the net cost of the change will be zero. Grassley has said the main source for that offset will be tightening up on fuel tax fraud.
Industry groups, seeking as big a bill as possible, are rooting for the Grassley-Baucus plan. They see lots of support in the Senate to push the bill past $284 billion. The amendment "is crucial to getting a bill off the Senate floor," says David Bauer, vice president for government relations for the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. Observers note that the added money will help meet the desires of "donor" states, who want to increase their return on fuel taxes paid from the current 90.5%.
If the amendment and the bill pass, there is another roadblock ahead. The White House remains adamant that $283.9 billion is all that it will accept. "Should the obligation or net authorization levels that would result from the final bill exceed [$283.9 billion], the Presidents senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill," the Office of Management and Budget said on April 26.
Since the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century expired Sept. 30, 2003, six short-term extensions have kept road and transit programs going. Stephen E. Sandherr, the Associated General Contractors CEO, says the long delay has "created a lot of uncertainty in the states and uncertainty for contractors." He says some states have reduced highway contract awards or borrowed funds to make up for federal shortfalls.
The latest stop-gap extension lapses May 31. Congress leaves May 20 for a Memorial Day recess and odds are long that it will wrap up a new, multi-year bill by then. "Its possible, but an awful lot is yet to be done," says AASHTOs Basso. That may well force extension seven.
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