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!

How to Control Federal Spending: The Highway Trust Fund

 

The federal Highway Trust Fund is almost out of money.  It takes in $35 billion per year from the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax, which has not been raised since 1993.  Sometime this summer the government will have to cut back on payments to state highway departments unless Congress acts.
CaptureAs the above chart from the Economist  shows, the U.S. spends much less of GDP on roads than many other developed nations.  Something clearly needs to be done because we need many improvements in infrastructure.  But there are better ways and poorer ways to solve this problem.  Here are two good ways as described by Thomas Donlan in a recent issue of Barron’s:

  • A bill to raise the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon over two years has been introduced in the Senate by Bob Corker (R, Tenn.) and Chris Murphy (D, Conn.). Each penny added to the federal gas tax rate will raise $1.3 billion and this would solve the problem.
  • Repeal the federal gas tax and turn federal highway construction entirely over to the states. Each state could then increase its own gas tax and/or pay for construction with tolls on bridges and roads.

Here are two examples of poor ways to replenish the Highway Trust Fund:

  • Continue adding to the Fund with borrowed money. $54 billion has been borrowed since 2008 for this purpose. Presumably the Sequester will make it much harder to continue such deficit financing.
  • Rep John Delaney (D, Mary.) has proposed a tax break for repatriated foreign profits by multinational American companies if part of the money brought back was spent on infrastructure bonds. This would interfere with the urgent need to reform corporate taxes with significantly lower rates offset by lowering deductions, in order to make our corporate tax internationally competitive.

Conclusion: There is a good chance that the Budget Sequester established by Congress in 2011 to control discretionary spending, as well as the widely recognized urgent need for corporate tax reform, will lead to a “good” rather than “bad” solution to the shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund. This is just one specific example of the challenge to sensible budgeting by Congress.
A much broader approach is needed to really shrink the deficit.  Stay tuned!