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House passes student loans, highway jobs bill

By Joan Lowy

Associated Press

Published: Friday, June 29 2012 11:39 a.m. MDT

The bill would spend about $100 billion on federal highway programs over two years, but puts off the politically tricky decision on how to pay for them after that. The federal 18.4 cent-a-gallon gasoline and 24.4 cent-a-gallon diesel taxes are no longer enough to pay for current spending on highway and transit programs. And two commissions and an array of private sector experts have said the U.S. should be spending about twice as much or more on its transportation infrastructure as it does now.

But Congress and the White House have refused to discuss raising fuel taxes or an alternative long-term source of money. The federal trust funds that pay for highway and transit programs are forecast to be nearly broke by the time the bill expires.

"When the bill expires we face a high cliff from which the program could fall," said Erich Zimmerman, a policy analyst with Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The fuel taxes are not indexed for inflation and haven't been increased since 1993, so their buying power has steadily eroded. Also, cars and trucks today are more fuel efficient and the number of miles driven has flattened, resulting in less gas tax revenue. Since 2008, Congress has three times dipped into the national general treasury to borrow a total of $34.5 billion to keep transportation programs going.

Congressional leaders decided to roll the transportation and student loan legislation into a single bill because, in the short term, they were both being paid in part by changes in pension laws.

Congressional bargainers reached an agreement earlier this week on the $6 billion college loan portion of that bill that would avert a doubling of interest rates beginning Sunday on federal loans to 7.4 million students. The current 3.4 percent interest rate on subsidized Stafford loans would balloon back to 6.8 percent on Sunday under a cost-saving maneuver contained in a 2007 law.

The bill also extends the federal flood insurance program to protect 5.6 million households and businesses. It addresses a shortfall arising from claims after 2005's Hurricane Katrina by reducing insurance subsidies for vacation homes and allowing for increases in premiums.

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