Wyoming Delegation Struggles To Fund Highways

Apr 17, 2015

Wyoming Highway 77
Credit Wikimedia Commons

With federal highway funding once again facing uncertainty, Wyoming officials have already had to postpone transportation projects. Matt Laslo reports from Washington on how Wyoming’s all Republican delegation is trying to do to shore up the program.

MATT LASLO: Conservatives and liberals don’t agree on much, but when it comes to highways and bridges they say the federal government maintains a vital role in keeping goods and services rolling from state to state. Still, lawmakers can’t seem to agree on a way to patch up the nation’s beleaguered funding mechanism for roads and bridges. That leaves lawmakers constantly passing short term fixes, which in turn leaves local officials in a bind.

CYNTHIA LUMMIS “Yeah, it does. The certainty, the planning makes it just nearly impossible.”   

LASLO: That’s Wyoming Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis. Over the last six years Congress has cobbled together thirty two short term patches to keep the nation’s highways funded. That’s a big deal because we’re talking about many multi-billion dollar projects that sometimes take more than a decade to build. The fund runs out on May 31st and Wyoming Senator John Barrasso says he and other Republicans are hoping to end this hopping from short term funding crisis to short term funding crisis.

JOHN BARRASSO: "We really are looking for a long-term solution.”

LASLO: When Democrats were in control of Congress a long-term solution evaded them, but Barrasso says he’s optimistic Republicans can tackle it. He says his optimism stems in part because under Republican leadership lawmakers were just able to resolve a Medicare funding problem: doctors had faced massive cuts annually. Not anymore because lawmakers reached a deal to end the triggered annual cuts. Barrasso says if this Congress can fix that, highways should be easy.

BARRASSO: “Year after year -- it's just like the SGR, the so-called "doc fix" after kicking the can 17 times we're finally in a bipartisan way. Got that passed…92 to 8. And that's been going on since the 90s. So if you ask me what big things we need to accomplish this year? That was certainly one of them.”  

LASLO: Liberals and many transportation groups continue to call for hiking the federal gas tax from just over eighteen cents a gallon to around thirty three cents a gallon. They say the argument is bolstered now that gas prices have slumped so low. But most Wyoming lawmakers disagree. Barrasso is a party leader in the Senate. He knows more than most the idea is a nonstarter now that tea party conservatives fill in the party’s ranks.

BARRASSO: "Absolutely off the table." 

LASLO: Barrasso seems to be right. Lummis once put her neck out with her conservative base and embraced a hike in the gas tax. Not anymore. She says her evolution on the issue is partly due to Wyoming officials recently hiking the state gas tax, but also because the national transportation landscape has changed.

LUMMIS: “It's because of watching more and more money go from gas tax dollars into mass transit as opposed to into roads. And watching fewer and fewer dollars collected as automobile mileage really does get better, so watching all that happen and choosing to start to look elsewhere.”

LASLO: Wyoming senior Senator Mike Enzi has a proposal floating around to adjust the gas tax for inflation – which would increase the federal gas tax – but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. One idea that’s been steadily picking up steam is called repatriation. It would grant a temporary tax holiday to U-S businesses with holdings overseas so the money can come back into the U-S economy, with some of it dedicated to roads and bridges. Lummis says it’s better than Congress passing a short term ten month fix like they did last year.

LUMMIS: “Now, that would be a one-time funding source but it would allow for a longer period of certainty and I believe is the appropriate way to go. So when I hear talk about a short-term extension I in a patch job to get it done. I am very un-attracted to that idea.”

LASLO: Senator Barrasso also supports repatriation.

BARRASSO: "I support bringing back money that American companies have overseas so it can be used in the United States. I've written about that, support it. So there's a huge value in doing it and I think it's one way to help fund the highway program."

LASLO: But many conservatives, like Georgia Republican Senator Johnny Isakson, brush that aside as a budget gimmick.

ISAKSON: "Well, they would be because they would be temporary. I think we need to make a permanent fix to the trust fund. Also that might encumber overall corporate tax reform if we did it, so." 

LASLO: Lummis admits as much, but she says it could provide the hundreds of billions of dollars needed to keep roads in Wyoming and across the U-S paved for now.

LUMMIS: “Now you've got to know that's a one-time deal. Once that money has repatriated you don't get it back again and again. But I think that for now during a time of transition I'm attracted to the idea of using repatriation dollars.”

LASLO: Along with Wyoming, five other states also have had to postpone transportation projects, according to the Transportation Department. That’s pressuring lawmakers to find a solution, but right now leaders in both parties seem to be fine with another temporary extension that leaves states in limbo.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Matt Laslo in Washington.