Saturday, June 26, 2004

Pass the six-year highway bill already


Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio is trying to flag down President Bush on a road-blocked federal highway bill, and the president ought to listen for his own good, and that of the states, this election year.

The president, in fiscal conservative mode, has threatened to veto the Senate's $318 billion version dubbed SAFETEA, which stands for Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act. Voinovich, a fellow Republican with Bush, argues it's a jobs and highway safety bill, and he's right.

The senator, who sits on the House-Senate conference committee, says the six-year reauthorization bill would create about 150,000 new job opportunities for Ohioans. He told the president in a letter in April that 14 Ohio counties and six large cities are running double-digit unemployment rates.

In a meeting Friday with the Enquirer editorial board, Voinovich said, "The president decided to be a fiscal conservative on this highway bill. Why wasn't he a fiscal conservative with the farm bill? I'm a fiscal conservative. This is not pork. I think this bill is important to the president's re-election." The senator thinks it will hurt Bush's chances, if he's the one who holds up the highway bill.

SAFETEA would deliver $3.1 billion to Ohio over six years, and the Ohio Department of Transportation already has drafted a $5 billion, 10-year plan to maintain and replace its far-flung and aging infrastructure of highways and bridges.

The bill would correct at least two inequities that have penalized Ohio, among other states. Highway bills are funded out of the Highway Trust Fund, which collects revenues from fuel taxes. Ohio has long been a donor state, getting less back in appropriations than it pays in taxes. Voinovich in the past helped raise Ohio's cut to 90 cents on the dollar. SAFETEA would raise it to 95 cents by 2009.

The bill would also stop penalizing states such as Ohio that are heavy users of the environmentally responsible fuel blend of ethanol. It would redirect ethanol taxes from the general fund and put them where they belong in the Highway Trust Fund. Voinovich insists all losses to the general fund are fully offset with spending cuts or other revenues.

Congress should resist a craven one-year extension and pass the six-year bill this year.

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