Originally created 01/24/04

Bill would raise gas tax returns



AIKEN - In the political math of the U.S. Senate, 5 cents can equal $1 billion.

That's the sum U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., cites to praise a proposed highway bill that would increase the guaranteed minimum return states receive in federal gas tax money from 90.5 cents on the dollar to 95 cents.

Great news for states such as South Carolina and Georgia, said Mr. Graham, because they are two of 25 states that pump more money into the Federal Highway Trust Fund than they get back for highway projects. Over the next six years, South Carolina would get $1.1 billion in extra road money if the proposed $311 billion highway bill becomes law.

However, transportation officials in Georgia and South Carolina - and a highway expert for a Washington, D.C. transportation reform group - say this is a mighty big "if."

"That's the potential good news side, but this is intricate algebra and there's some doubt the situation will really change," said Dan Gentry, the policy analyst chief for the Georgia Department of Transportation.

"That windfall would be fantastic for South Carolina, but it's way too early to call," said U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, R-S.C.

In other words, "donor" states such as Georgia and South Carolina will keep giving more than they receive from the federal highway coffer despite the higher guaranteed minimum, said Kevin McCarty, of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a nonprofit transportation reform group based in Washington. In general, sparsely populated Western states and heavy-weather Northern and Midwestern states get more than high-growth Southern states such as Georgia and South Carolina.

And even though the proposed bill guarantees every state a return of 95 cents on every dollar it collects on the 18.4 cent federal gas tax in the proposed highway bill, not every dollar in the federal pot is subject to the formula. In fact, the new bill would increase the percentage of discretionary money subject to congressional arm-twisting from the current 5 percent to about 12 percent.

That's bad news for Georgia, said Mr. Gentry, because Peach State lawmakers aren't as good at wrestling for extra highway dollars as lawmakers from other states with more seniority.

South Carolina, because of veteran legislators such as the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond and retiring U.S. Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, was better at the wrangling game. Their mastery of pork-barrel politics boosted the Palmetto State's share from 88 cents on the dollar to 93 cents, said Michael Covington, director of governmental and legislative affairs for the South Carolina Department of Transportation.

"But there's no guarantee we're going to continue to do well in the future," he said.

HIGHWAY MONEY

When it comes to soaking up federal highway dollars, there are "donors," states that give up more in federal gas tax collections than they receive, and "recipients," states that get more than they collect.

Donor states include:

  • Georgia - 86 cents on every dollar collected
  • South Carolina - 88 cents on every dollar collected
  • Recipient states include:

  • New York - $1.23 on every dollar collected
  • Alaska - $6.08 on every dollar collected
  • Source: The Share Coalition, Washington, D.C.

    Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395 or jim.nesbitt@augustachronicle.com.