The new chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said he has a clear understanding from House leaders that changes to future Highway Trust Fund legislation will not use trust fund receipts to offset other types of federal spending.
Various transportation industry officials have warned that a Jan. 5 change in House rules could jeopardize the flow of money to state highway projects from the federal trust fund, by dropping a guaranteed link the House previously used to distribute fuel tax receipts in line with spending commitments from multi-year surface transportation laws.
But Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who became chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure panel last week, said "I feel pretty confident" in the assurances he has received in talks with House leaders, particularly Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and in a brief but formal exchange he had on the House floor with Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif, who chairs the Rules Committee.
"Through a colloquy that I did on the floor with David Dreier," Mica told The Journal of Commerce, "we got a pretty good clarification that the funds would still be handled within the trust fund in the same manner, and that they would only be used for highway purposes."
In that discussion with Dreier, Mica asked for confirmation that the new legislative rule "makes no change in the manner in which highway, highway safety, motor carrier safety, and transit programs are currently funded," but instead allows House members to offer amendments that might reduce funding. Dreier agreed the new rule "does not change the way in which the underlying programs are funded."
Backers of the change say it can prevent the highway fund from spending too quickly so that it needs propping up from general revenue. Critics say by cutting the link used since 1998 between trust fund disbursements and multi-year spending laws, the new GOP House majority makes it easier to cut highway spending or build up trust fund balances to offset deficit spending elsewhere in the federal budget.
Mica had thought of that possibility as well. "We were concerned," he said, "that some of the old practices of a shell game - you know, use trust fund moneys to offset other spending - might be played, but I feel pretty confident both with the colloquy that we have and the understanding I have with leadership, and Mr. Cantor in particular, that that won't happen."
-- Contact John D. Boyd at email@example.com.