WASHINGTON -- Senate debate on the highway bill stalled Friday after arguing broke out over an amendment designed to increase state spending by giving "bonuses" to state that spend more on highways.
The amendment, offered late Thursday by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., would tack on $8.2 billion in federal highway spending in the next five years to the $115 billion of highway and mass transit spending already contained in the bill.
While the lion's share of the bill's money would continue to be apportioned under longstanding state allocation formulas, half of the additional money would be awarded under a controversial formula that gives state with higher-than-average gasoline taxes a bonus.
The level of a state's gas tax is considered one measure of a state's commitment to road spending. The other half of the amendment's money would be divided between the 12 so-called donor states than contribute more in federal gas tax revenues to the highway trust fund than they receive in grants.
The threat of a filibuster over the allocation issue led Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, to postpone further debate on the highway measure until today, when he said he hopes to schedule a vote on the amendment.
The amendment "encourages states to do more" to maintain their transportation infrastructure, said Sen. Byrd. He estimated that 43 states would gain from the amendment, including 33 states which would receive bonuses for higher-than-average highway spending. States on the whole already spend about $65 billion a year on highways, analysts say.
The senator noted that the Bush administration has been pushing an alternative method to stimulate additional state and local highway spending -- increasing local matching share requirements, a policy strongly opposed by the states.
"The administration wants to use the club," but the Senate amendment is offering to "reward" states instead, he said. "To whom much is given, much is expected."
He said he did not know whether the administration would support using the "carrot" instead of the "stick" to entice the states. The administration has cited the bill's low matching share requirements as one reason for a possible veto.
Because of the high sums at stake, the amendment came under fire from senators from eight states which would receive no additional money, including Kansas, New Hampshire, Maine, Alabama, Hawaii, New York, Vermont and Wyoming.
Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole, R-Kan., said it would be unfair to link the bonus money to the level of a state's gas taxes, since a number of states use gas tax money for purposes other than highways, such as agriculture, parks, alcohol and drug abuse control, or general government functions.
Also, some states finance highway spending out of their general funds or through sales taxes and fees other than gas taxes, he pointed out. States should be rewarded for their "total effort" toward highways, not just the amount of gas taxes they raise, he and other opponents argued.
Sen. Byrd conceded that opponents "have a point" in raising fairness questions, but he said, "it would be an administrative nightmare" to try to gauge state investment in highways by any method other than the gas tax measure.
Sen. Steven Symms, R-Idaho, one of the bill's sponsors, predicted the amendment would pass and that the bill would pass shortly thereafter, it opponents do not obstruct a vote with a filibuster.
In action late Thursday, the Senate approved an amendment aimed at softening White House opposition to the bill. The administration had threatened a veto in part because it failed to authorize a new National Highway System as proposed in the administration's highway bill.
The Senate-approved amendment would authorize a pilot, 180,000-mile National Highway System in the next two years to be funded with about half of the $45 billion the bill contains for surface transportation spending.
President Bush endorsed the amendment, according to its sponsor, Sen. David Durenberger, R-Minn. But the White House has not yet indicated whether it has lifted its other objections to the bill.