Originally created 03/15/97

Gas tax burns dixie



Forget the battle of the budget, welfare fights, entitlement rows, confirmation brawls and everything else that divides Democrats and Republicans.

Congress' bloodiest combat every half dozen years or so isn't over traditional Left-Right issues. It's over the federal highway funding formula, an anachronistic device that sets region against region over the way federal gas tax money is apportioned..

This year members are preparing a $175 billion measure to finance the nation's highway projects for the next six years. The current formula, devised decades ago, is a fabulous deal for the Northeast and much of the West, a poor deal for most of the Midwest - and a disaster for the South.

South Carolinians get back only 56 cents of every gas-tax dollar they send to Washington - by far the nation's worst "pay-back." But, in fact, all Dixie states receive less than they put in; all Northeast states, more.

In 1991, Southern lawmakers tried gamely to make the formula fairer, but failed - proving it's always easier to defend the status quo than to change it.

New efforts are under way this year, led by Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C. Labeled the "Sweet Tea" proposal (the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, or ISTEA), Sanford would guarantee that each state gets back what it puts into the Highway Trust Fund - and that all spending decisions would be made in the states, not bartered in Congress.

Sanford has powerful opposition, headed by Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa.. He chairs the House panel that will decide how the highway money is apportioned. His state gets back $1.32 for every dollar it sends in - an arrangement Shuster is delighted with.

He says the Northeast has a greater need because their highways are older and are used by a larger share of out-of-state motorists.

But it is certainly no greater than that of Sun Belt and other "donor" states whose transportation allocations don't begin to meet the needs for new roads and highways to accommodate their booming populations and expanding economies. Anyone who travels through South Carolina or Georgia can attest to that.

States wanting change, though, have a not-so-secret weapon this year that they didn't have in the past. Most of the majority leadership in both the House and Senate hails from the South, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., whose state receives only 81 cents on the dollar and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., whose state collects 88 cents.

There has been a lot of punditry about how much Congress' center of power has shifted away from the Northeast and toward the South. That conventional wisdom will be severely tested in the battle over federal highway funds.