One Senate Democratic leader is amping up warnings about a looming congressional disaster — the Highway Trust Fund, a transportation and infrastructure fund financed by gasoline taxes, is set to run out by the end of the summer.
Sen. Patty Murray warned on the Senate floor Tuesday of the potential calamity and offered possible solutions — the elimination of what she called “wasteful” tax loopholes.
“The construction industry was particularly hard hit by the economic downturn. Allowing the Highway Trust Fund to reach critically low levels would be another blow to an industry that’s already seen more than its fair share of job loss and uncertainty,” Murray said on the Senate floor.
“For all of these reasons, Congress needs to act to avoid a potential construction shutdown this summer.”
The Obama administration has warned that 700,000 jobs and tens of thousands of projects are tied to the Highway Trust Fund’s uncertain future. Gasoline taxes are no longer enough to finance the fund — and lawmakers do not want to raise gas taxes in an election year.
House Republicans are considering a proposal that would replenish the fund by scaling back U.S. Postal Service deliveries on Saturdays. But Murray rejected that solution.
“I believe that’s the wrong way to go. There are better ways to address both Postal Service reform and the Highway Trust Fund shortfall,” she said.
Here are Murray’s full remarks, as prepared for delivery:
“States across the country are working on transportation projects to repair bridges and relieve traffic on the nation’s roads and highways.
“Kentucky, for example, has started widening Interstate 65 between Bowling Green and Elizabethtown.
“Local officials there say it’s an important project to ease traffic and to help ambulances and fire trucks get to the scene of emergencies more quickly.
“But earlier this year, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear said that project might be at risk because of a shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund.
“M. President, a crisis in the Highway Trust Fund could jeopardize thousands of important transportation projects around the country if Congress doesn’t act.
“So today, I’m once again calling on my colleagues to work together to avert a crisis in the Highway Trust Fund. And, I’ll call attention to specific, wasteful tax loopholes that Congress could eliminate to shore up the trust fund — loopholes that both Democrats and Republicans have, in the past, said we should close.
“M. President, there can be no question the Highway Trust Fund is facing a revenue problem.
“The Department of Transportation has been warning for months that it expects the trust fund to reach critically low levels as soon as this summer. If that happens, the Department might have to delay reimbursements to states.
“The crisis is no longer a hypothetical. It has already caused states to plan for a construction shutdown if Congress doesn’t act.
“In Georgia, more than 70 transportation projects could be delayed indefinitely, according to state officials there.
“In North Carolina, an engineer for the state’s Department of Transportation said: if the trust fund runs dry, ‘that essentially stops our construction program.’
“And this crisis could have a serious impact on construction jobs.
“If states aren’t able to enter into new construction contracts, as many as 700,000 jobs could be at risk, according to the Department of Transportation.
“M. President, the construction industry was particularly hard hit by the economic downturn. Allowing the Highway Trust Fund to reach critically low levels would be another blow to an industry that’s already seen more than its fair share of job loss and uncertainty.
“For all of these reasons, Congress needs to act to avoid a potential construction shutdown this summer.
“In the past few weeks, I’ve been encouraged that members on both sides of the aisle agree we need to replenish the Highway Trust Fund with revenue.
“Allowing the trust fund to run dry is not an option. Putting construction jobs at risk is not an option. Failing to make much-needed investments in our roads and bridges is not an option.
“House Republicans have offered a proposal to cut mail delivery down to a modified five-day delivery system, to temporarily fund the Highway Trust Fund.
“But, I believe that’s the wrong way to go. There are better ways to address both Postal Service reform and the Highway Trust Fund shortfall.
“But I do think there is an opportunity to solve this looming crisis in a way that should have bipartisan support.
“Our tax code is riddled with wasteful tax loopholes that benefit the wealthiest Americans and the biggest corporations. And many of these are loopholes that both Democrats and Republicans have proposed closing.
“For example, Republican Congressman Dave Camp, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, Senator Reed of Rhode Island, and Senator Levin of Michigan, have all proposed eliminating the so-called “stock option” loophole.
“Right now, corporations claim enormous tax breaks by compensating their executives in stock options, instead of regular paychecks. That’s so the corporation can skirt a tax rule that limits deductible cash compensation to $US1 million per year for each of a handful of corporate officers.
“Closing that loophole alone would save as much as $US50 billion over ten years.
“Another loophole allows some wealthy business owners to mischaracterize their income as business profits, instead of a salary, to avoid paying their fair share of payroll taxes.
“Putting a stop to that unfair practice — as both Chairman Camp and Democrats have proposed — could save more than $US15 billion over the next ten years.
“These are just two wasteful and unfair tax loopholes that both Democrats and Republicans have proposed closing. But the list of loopholes goes on and on.
“And we can use the revenue generated by closing just a few of them to avoid an unnecessary crisis, shore up the Highway Trust Fund, and make the critical investments we need in our roads and bridges across the country.
“M. President, I know for many people around the country, this looming Highway Trust Fund crisis is all too familiar. For them, it’s yet another example of Congress lurching from crisis to crisis.
“Just last week, the director of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department said he reminds people that just last year, Congress shut down the entire federal government. That’s how he knows there’s a real threat that Congress will shut down investments in our roads and bridges.
“So states like Arkansas aren’t taking any chances. State officials there recently delayed 10 projects. And they said they might have to delay even more work if Congress doesn’t act.
“M. President, states deserve more certainty in the Highway Trust Fund. Commuters are counting on transportation projects to ease traffic congestion. And construction workers are counting on jobs to repair roads and bridges.
“Let’s build on the common ground that Democrats and Republicans share to replenish the Highway Trust Fund. Let’s show commuters, businesses, workers, and states that Congress can come together to resolve this crisis. Let’s work together and prevent a construction shutdown this summer.
“Thank you, M. President. I yield the floor.”
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