Cutting the Federal Budget, an Example: The Highway Trust Fund


As an advocate of cutting federal spending, people sometimes ask me exactly what I would cut to save money and lower the deficit. I have two standard answers to this question:

  • Often I will respond, it is up to Congress to figure this out. The important thing is to shrink the deficit one way or another. It doesn’t matter from a fiscal point of view exactly what is cut.
  • Another answer I like to give is that with the sequester already slowing down discretionary spending, we should concentrate on finding savings in entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

While both of these answers have validity in a general sense, nevertheless I do look for ways to cut back on discretionary spending as well. Here is a good idea from Reason magazine’s Veronique de Rugy, “Let States Build Their Own Highways.” The rationale is very simple. The federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents/gallon brings in about $40 billion per year which goes into the Highway Trust Fund. But the HTF is spending $53 billion per year, meaning that federal gas tax revenue is being supplemented by $13 billion from general revenues. This additional $13 billion per year can be viewed as an unjustified federal expense merely adding to the deficit.
Capture2The way to address this issue is to:

  • Abolish the federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents/gallon as of some specific date in the future, say in a year from the time such a law is enacted.
  • Turn over all responsibility for highway construction to the states.
  • States can then decide individually how much of the federal gasoline tax they wish to continue as a state gasoline tax in order to finance their own highway funding.
  • Minimal federal guidelines could be maintained if desired to insure uniform quality control by the states.

Of course, a $13 billion annual budget savings could be looked at as a drop in the bucket, not nearly large enough to make a sizable dent in the federal deficit (latest projection for fiscal year 2015: $426 billion). That would be too cynical. There are undoubtedly many other smart ways to cut back federal spending. I am constantly looking for them!

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