George V. Voinovich: Obama Must Put Some Muscle Behind Gasoline-tax Increase

George V. Voinovich is a former senator and governor of Ohio and a member of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. He wrote a commentary today that appeared in The Columbus Dispatch. It is reposted below.

As the 114th Congress heats up and the legislative priorities for the new session are espoused, it is time to pass a gasoline-tax increase as part of a robust, multiyear transportation package that would respond to the growing crisis in highway and transit infrastructure, create jobs, improve highway safety, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and provide safe and affordable transit and rail alternatives to the many people who need them.

The federal gasoline tax has not been increased since President Bill Clinton led the charge in 1993, and since then it has lost more than 40 percent of its value because of inflation. For over 20 years, Congress has resisted increasing the gasoline tax and has been committing what Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has called “generational theft,” by borrowing money from the General Revenue Fund to shore up the Highway Trust Fund to the tune of more than $56 billion in the past six years. This number will continue to rise as the value of the current gasoline tax evaporates.

It is significant that Ray LaHood, former secretary of transportation under President Barack Obama, is espousing an increase in the gasoline tax as the only way to fund a robust, multiyear highway bill. If LaHood is genuine, he should urge the president to do what I suggested in my letter to the president on Sept. 23, 2010, as the ranking Republican member of the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee.

In the letter, I said “the administration needs to be fully engaged and at the table as the House and Senate draft a bill.” If the president stays on the sidelines, we will continue to fund our nation’s infrastructure through short-term and unsustainable gimmicks.

The latest of these gimmicks is a process known as repatriation, which gives corporations a one-time tax holiday, lowering the tax on returning overseas profits and then using those revenues to shore up the Trust Fund. Even if this measure passes Congress before May and even if it produces the projected revenue, it is still a one-time infusion and does nothing to fix the long-term status of the Highway Trust Fund.

If there is to be a one-time infusion of funds, it should be used for one-time highway projects of national significance, such as the Brent Spence Bridge connecting Ohio and Kentucky. Using a one-time infusion to temporarily shore up the Highway Trust Fund is simply kicking the can down the road, as Congress has done since 2009 when the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, passed in 2005, expired.

The gasoline tax has the support of business (U.S. Chamber of Commerce), labor (AFL-CIO), truckers (American Trucking Associations), builders (the American Road & Transportation Builders Association), planners (the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials), manufacturing (the National Association of Manufacturers), along with other national organizations such as AAA and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Additionally, The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times all have endorsed a gasoline-tax increase. USA Today’s editorial board states: “The best way to deal with declining gas-tax revenue happens to be the simplest way: Raise the gas tax. It’s also the fairest way.”

What we need now is leadership from President Barack Obama. If he were to take a leadership position like Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton before him, it would make a vast difference in the support he would get from Congress in carrying this common-sense, long-term solution through Congress, past the president’s desk and into infrastructure projects in all 50 states. Without his leadership, the president simply cannot expect Congress to rise to the occasion.

"My Views" are works published by members of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, but they do not necessarily reflect the views of all members of the committee.