The Tea Party vision for the federal Highway Trust Fund

Transportation Trust Fund blog post logo

Many of you by now have probably read my “No New Funding (equals) A Transportation Disaster” blog post that I put out back in April, which explained the current situation of federal Highway Trust Fund and why it’s running dry. On June 30th, I put out a brief follow-up post stating how time is running out for our elected officials to come up with a longer-term solution to replenish the federal Highway Trust Fund (which I will refer to throughout the rest of this post as the HTF), due to the ongoing partisan bickering that continues to stall any significant progress. Then, just Tuesday, July 17, the Republican-led House came up with a short-term measure that would keep the HTF funded through May, 2015, something that both many Democrats and some Tea Party groups aren’t too happy about. The plan is being spearheaded by Republican Congressman Dave Camp of Michigan and is known as HR5021, or The Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2014. The measure passed the House chamber with a 367 to 55 vote.

In my June 30th post, I briefly highlighted that some Tea Party activists like Sharon Calvert, who is the leader and co-founder of the Tampa Tea Party, would like to see the federal HTF be completely eliminated. Yes, you heard right, Sharon and many other Tea Party activists and politicians would love to see the HTF be axed out of the infrastructure funding picture. Instead, these activists and politicians would like to see the states tackle these funding decisions directly, rather than having to deal with the federal government. At first glance, this doesn’t sound like a far-fetched idea. After all, you do have the principle of “States Rights”, which go back to the founding days of the United States. However, when you read as to why Sharon would like to see this happen, you have to wonder if her arguments have any logic to them. I’m going to take a few moments to show how flawed this ridiculous Tea Party “vision” really is. Before going into my argument though, I would like the provide you with a bit of background so that you can fully understand why I am making my argument.

If you haven’t yet done so, please take a few moments to read what Sharon wrote back in early June on “Eye on Tampa Bay”.

Is the absence of federal earmarks a good thing?

One of the key things that Sharon’s post addresses is earmarks, which is also known as “Pork Barrel Spending”. Many of us know how valuable, and wasteful earmarks can be. Some will recall that wretched “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska…yes, that made me mad as well. Now, until recently, the usage of earmarks was a regular part of the way Congress did business, and some think tanks did their best to keep track of where all the pork was going to. I’ll discuss in a moment as to what happened to earmarks here in the US. As you’ll see in Sharon’s post, she mainly focuses on the cons of earmarks. However, earmarks can have some good benefits too, especially at the state and local levels, it’s not all just negative doom and gloom with earmarks, and the same principle can be applied to federal transportation funding scenarios.

There is nowhere that the state version of earmarking has been taken to as dramatic an extreme as Alabama, where the general fund makes up only about 16 percent of total state generated dollars. The majority of tax revenues flow into different earmarked pots, the largest one being for education, which automatically gets the state’s income and sales taxes. “If money isn’t protected, you’re very much exposed to getting it taken away from you,” says Jim Williams, executive director of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama.

(source)

So let’s have a look at this (just my two cents), if earmarks were done at the state level, rather than the federal level, are you really eliminating all of that pork that once existed at the federal level? The way I see it…no…you’re not, you’re just cutting out the federal “middleman”. In my view, the political games associated with pork spending would probably wind up cascading into the state legislatures. Who wants to deal with numerous pork battles in the state legislatures? The states already have enough to worry about!

So what exactly happened to federal earmarks?

Never did I think for a moment that something would pass through the congressional chambers in Washington that would actually be aimed at ridding pork out of the equation. However, back in 2010 and 2011 a ban on federal pork spending was passed through the congressional chambers in Washington. Originally championed by fiscal conservatives, the measure eventually gained support of BOTH SIDES OF THE AISLE! A very interesting article I read from the Boston Globe, published May of 2013, talked about how the massive cutback in pork spending has very well contributed to the large-scale inability of our federal legislature to get things done. Perhaps we wouldn’t be in a situation where we have to deal with those hideous “sequester” budget cuts and these “kick the can down the road” games that we’ve become so accustomed to seeing, if we still had a little bit of pork spending in Washington.

“There is no question that sometimes, to get bills through, you have to ask people to vote for things that are going to cause them political pain at home, and you ease that pain by compensating them with earmarks,” said former Massachusetts representative Barney Frank in an interview. Today, he added, there are other things a party leader can do to build support for legislation, but “earmarks were the best.”

(source)

What are orphaned earmarks?

Sharon’s next tidbit mentions “orphaned earmarks”, which is money that is directed towards a specific project (in this case, highway projects) that wound up laying unused. This USA Today article from 2011 highlighted the enormous problem surrounding orphaned earmarks. The article mentioned that between 1991 and 2011, $7.5 billion dollars that could have gone to vital highway and bridge projects were earmarked out, but never spent. Sharon goes on to mention HR4715, a House bill known as the Orphan Earmarks Act, introduced back in May, 2014 by Republican Oklahoma Congressman James Lankford. This bill would have voided out and rescinded these unspent funds so that they could be used for projects that really need the funding. A companion Senate measure, S2370 was also brought up in May. Both measures remain in committee and it’s unclear if they will ever pass through to the full chambers. The Taxpayers Protection Alliance wrote this post back on June 16, calling on the measures to be passed.

What is the TEA measure?

Just by reading the two above points about earmarks, you can see why Sharon wants the HTF to be abolished. She believes that the HTF has far exceeded its original scope, partly by including transit in the money pool (this was done in 1982). Sharon also believes that because there is limited interest in raising the gas tax, the revenue source for the HTF, that the HTF should be done away with altogether. In November, 2013, Republican Congressman Tom Graves of Georgia introduced the Transportation Empowerment Act (or TEA) as an effort to put an end to the HTF by substantially reducing the federal gas tax and allowing states to manage their own transportation projects and policies. Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah has sponsored the TEA measure alongside Congressman Graves. Should the TEA measure pass, states supposedly could raise their own gas taxes to make up for the shortfall caused by the drop in the federal gas tax.

The bad and the ugly with this “vision”.

Although everything from Sharon’s perspective seems pretty clear cut, I strongly beg to differ. My question is this, will raising state gas taxes be enough to fill the voids left behind from the reduction in the federal gas tax? Or will some states have to later resort to other increases, like raising sales taxes and increasing other fees to further make up for the losses? The way I see the Graves’ plan, you’re simply removing the federal “middleman” from the equation. It would be debatable as to whether the measure in the long-run would solve the broader problem.

Right now, Florida’s gas tax is just over 36 cents a gallon, the 11th highest in the US! Imagine if that tax gradually increased to lets say…60 cents a gallon over a span of five years (2015 to 2020)? This of course assumes that the TEA measure passes in 2014 and takes effect in 2015. Would a state gas tax of 60 cents a gallon be enough to cover the shortfall from the decrease of the federal gas tax? At what point would Floridians be reluctant to raise the state gas tax any higher? And an even bigger question (and I’m sure it’s happening in some states as I typed this post), what if state gas taxes revenues are abused? Then we basically fall right back into square one…right? I can’t see why Sharon would see all of this as a good thing…oh wait, but I do…that answer will come in just a moment.

Going to my point of other revenues for a moment, things such as state sales taxes (for those states that have sales taxes imposed) and other state-imposed taxes and fees. Would those taxes and fees go up because states can’t fill the gaps left behind by the loss of federal gas tax revenues? Let’s just say hypothetically, the state of Florida raised its sales tax. Florida’s current sales tax is 6% (though some counties and municipalities have slightly higher rates). What if that tax rate climbed to maybe 9% in order to cover those transportation losses, because the state gas tax is suddenly too high and Floridians won’t go any higher? If that were to happen, Sharon probably would have to come to realization that this Tea Party “vision”…just took a tumble. Maybe she should quit talking about Greenlight Pinellas. 😉

So after initially reading through Sharon’s post, I thought to myself, “this post absolutely makes no sense to me!” and why not? Many things that the Tea Party has pulled to try and get their way has not made any sense to me…period. Then, about a week ago, I noticed that someone on the “Vote Yes on Greenlight” Facebook Page posted a link to this Streetsblog USA post that put this silly “Cloud 9 vision” into perspective. Back in March of 2011, Sharon traveled to Washington to speak at a Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing, to pitch…get this…removing transit funding from the federal HTF. And by the way, Sharon was representing a Tea Party group called Florida Alliance, which I don’t even know if they even exist anymore. The link on the Streetsblog post no longer works and I couldn’t find any information about the alliance on Google. Hmmmmm…

So maybe it’s not so coincidental how Sharon brings up at the end of her post about transit needing its own funding source. I totally agree that it does. However, this frivolous Tea Party “vision” is NOT the way to go about solving our transportation problems. This goes to show rather, that the Tea Party has absolutely no meaningful solutions for transportation, other than to slash and cut what we have, and then have private enterprise step in, because the Tea Party believes that private enterprise can do things better than the government. What kind of a “solution” is that? Remember my post on Greenlight Pinellas and how towards the end of the post, I mentioned that Tea Party backed group No Tax For Tracks would like to see PSTA be privatized? Yep! There you have it! That’s what they want to do!

Ever since the heated fiscal battles began a couple years ago in Washington, one of the biggest things I’ve heard from Tea Party backed politicians have been the “My way or the highway” approach. Not to say that other politicians don’t do it, but it seems that the Tea Party backed politicians try to sock it to the moderates of the GOP more often than others I’ve seen within the party. Although I fully understand the fundamental principles of the Tea Party to shrink the size of government and to have the United States return to its constitutional fundamentals, does consistently holding the US economy and other institutions hostage the way to go for the Tea Party? NO WAY! Of course, they (the Tea Party) don’t see it that way, and never will either.

The conservative policy and political action groups are leading the charge to make sure their “vision” becomes reality.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that conservative groups like Heritage Action, which is a sister policy advocacy organization of the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, are promoting these very flawed Tea Party-backed policies and visions, and this “vision” being pitched by Sharon Calvert is definitely no exception. In fact, the Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2014 that passed the House chamber on Tuesday is among the measures opposed by Heritage Action. What makes all of this come full circle is that Heritage Action is also promoting the TEA measure which I explained earlier about.

Something that ties Heritage Action to the Tampa Bay Area is Karen Jaroch. Karen is a licensed professional engineer, Florida Regional Coordinator for Heritage Action, and since 2010 – a member of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Board of Directors. Karen was among many who fought against the 2010 Hillsborough County sales tax referendum that would have brought forth better transit options, including light rail, to the county. Sharon has also interviewed Karen on a few occasions as part of her “Eye on Tampa Bay” blog posts. Here’s one from August of 2013, where the two are seen at a Defund Obamacare Town Hall.

I also stumbled upon a more recent interview, where Karen talks about the failure of the 2010 Hillsborough transit referendum and HART’s MetroRapid line. Please note that in this video, Karen is expressing her own thoughts and views, not those of HART.

Conclusion

So we can now see the full scope of what Sharon Calvert and other Tea Party activists are trying to address; a very rotten transportation “vision” based on typical Tea Party ideology. It really doesn’t surprise me that Tea Party activists and various conservative advocacy groups would champion this “vision”. To me, this “vision” is doing two things: first, it no doubt attempts to further strengthen the Tea Party base, which has taken a hit along with the GOP as a whole lately. I’m sure many Tea Party politicians and activists are hoping that their “vision” will hopefully (but by no guarantee) thrust them back into the spotlight this upcoming November. And second, this “vision” also furthers the Tea Party’s agenda to keep federal government out of the transportation funding equation altogether, because they think private enterprise and the states can do things much better than the federal government.

With all of this said, I’d love to go ahead and call this frivolous “vision” for transportation the “Cloud 9 Tea Party Express”!!! I even have this graphic I made, which depicts a destination signboard that would typically be found on the side window of a subway railcar.

TPEX

And just for the record, I’ve asked Sharon several times through social media what kinds of meaningful solutions does she have for transit, both in Tampa Bay specifically, and transit in general. I’ve yet to hear any responses from her. I think we can see why now… 😉

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