Road warrior 

Baucus battles for highway funds

As two years of congressional haggling over reauthorization of the federal transportation bill comes to an end, Montana appears to have come out on top again, furthering its tradition of getting more than it pays for in federal gas taxes, which go toward highway funding.

Since 1956, Montana has received more than its share of federal highway funding dollars—nearly two and a half times as much as it paid out, in fact. Montana is among the 29 “donee” states that receive similar treatment. Most of these donee states get less than 1.25 times what they pay in. But Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Alaska and the District of Columbia, as of 2003, got more than twice what they paid in. In the newest transportation bill, approved by Congress Friday, July 29, Montana received a 44-percent increase in funding, compared with an average 30-percent increase for other states.

“We made out very well,” said Montana State Highway Depart-ment Director Jim Lynch, who enumerated some of the specifics of the bill, including $50 million for Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park and $30 million for the Kalispell U.S. 93 bypass, contributing to a total of $2.3 billion for the state.

Why the boon for Montana?

“I think all the credit goes to Sen. Max Baucus,” Lynch said. “He’s been the common denominator in all of the last three [transportation] bills.”

Baucus serves as the ranking Democrat on the Senate committee handling transportation issues, and sits on the joint House-Senate committee that hashed out a final version of the bill.

Lynch also pointed out a logical reason for Montana getting more money:

“Montana is a big state with a small population,” he said. “It’s only natural and fair that we should get more.”

If that seems logical, try telling it to one of the 20 states that pays out more than it receives, like Texas, which will receive about 90 percent of what it paid in federal gas taxes for 2003.

Not surprisingly, House majority leader and Texas representative Tom DeLay led the charge against donee state inequity with his State Highway Alliance for Real Equity (SHARE) coalition.

“I understand the reasoning behind having donor and donee states 50 years ago,” DeLay said, as head of the SHARE coalition. “The nation’s infrastructure was a collection of local systems, and various regions needed to be brought up to speed. With a national highway system now linking up almost every town in the nation, that is no longer the case.”

DeLay may be right about that, but he misses the point that while Texas ranks 32 in state household income and has 1,563 people splitting the cost of each mile of road, Montana ranks 43 and has only 233 people per mile of road.

The House bill DeLay supported called for all donor states to receive 95 percent of what they pay into the system, starting the first year funding was reauthorized. That formula would have set aside at least $3 million less in federal funding for Montana than did the Senate bill, which, according to Lynch, would have cost the state at least one highway project.

“It’s a big deal for us,” Lynch said, pointing out that in each of the state’s five highway districts, he has three to four projects on hold.

In contrast, the Senate bill kept minimum returns at the 90.5-percent rate they reached over the last two years, leaving most of the donee states’ funding intact.

The two-year battle between the House and Senate over the rival bills cost all the donee states some funding.

Each year, a provision in the 1998 transportation bill reauthorization shifts a percentage of donee state money to donor states. Last year, Montana lost eight percent of its funding. This year, if Congress had again failed to pass a new bill, Montana would have lost 10 percent. The new House bill would have kept the reapportionment provision, while the Senate bill eliminated it.

Fighting ceased Friday, when the House and Senate finally came to an agreement.

The latest transportation bill made concessions to DeLay and the House bill by gradually raising minimum returns for donor states to 92 percent over the next three years—a bit less than the 95 percent they’d wanted right away. The old rule that continued to increase the donor states’ share was eliminated. The rules for determining which states qualify as donees were also rewritten.

It’s hard to miss Baucus’ fingerprints on those rules.

States that, according to the 2000 census, have a population of less than one million, a median household income of less than $35,000 and a population density of less than 20 per square mile are eligible to retain their historic donee status.

In 2000, Montana happened to have a population of 902,195, a median income of $33,000 and a population density of 6.7 per square mile.

Baucus’ office did not return phone calls seeking comment on his apparent coup.

After what looks to have been a terrific save, Baucus came close to derailing the entire bill by pushing for too much pork. A provision he slipped in that would have reopened a Malmstrom Air Force Base runway closed in 1995 was stripped from the bill by the House on Friday. Rather than continue the fight and hold up the bill any longer, Baucus let the runway go.

“I can’t in good faith derail this important bill at this late hour,” Baucus told his colleagues, in abandoning the runway provision. “I’m sorry the House acted as if it knows what is best for Great Falls, Montana.”

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