This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Washington • Sen. Orrin Hatch is praising a newly passed highway bill for which the Utah Republican found billions in funds to avoid a tax increase while Sen. Mike Lee denounced the measure as an "accounting gimmick."
The Senate on Thursday night passed a $305 billion, five-year extension of the federal highway bill to fund construction and renovation of highways and bridges, a long-sought effort that had faced trouble as gas-tax receipts have lessened over the past several years. The House had previously passed the bill and President Barack Obama says he will sign it.
Hatch, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was charged with finding a pot of money to help make up needed funds and pushed through language to funnel $70 billion from the treasury's general fund and $53.3 billion from a surplus account of the Federal Reserve.
"We've heard time and again that a long-term highway bill would only be possible if we included a big tax increase," Hatch said. "Yet we've been able to defy the odds and provide much-needed funding for America's bridges, highways, and roads for the next five years."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had assigned Hatch to find what are called "offsets" to cover the deficit in revenue from the gas tax, and the GOP leader thanked the Utah senator after the bill passed.
"Workhorse not show horse is always how Orrin Hatch conducts himself in the Senate," McConnell said in a statement. "His leadership and perseverance have been critical to getting the longest highway bill in almost 20 years through the Congress when few thought we could get this done."
Lee was one of 16 senators all Republican who voted against the bill.
"We are told this bill fully funds federal highway spending for the next five years and that it won't add a single dime to the federal deficit," Lee said on the Senate floor Thursday. "The math may add up on paper, but does anyone really think the pay-fors in this bill are honest, responsible ways to fund a government program?"
Lee said $50 billion of the money to pay for the bill comes from an "accounting gimmick that steals money from the rest of the treasury's general fund."
He also said $6.3 billion comes from selling oil from the nation's reserves at $93 a barrel, while a barrel is currently selling for $40.
"Only in Washington could we come to accept a provision like this as somehow acceptable," Lee said. "If we are going to start selling federal assets at fantasy prices – prices that do not exist and will not exist in any universe for the foreseeable future – there is absolutely no limit whatsoever to the number of things that we can pretend to pay for."
Utah transportation officials, though, were quick to celebrate the passage of the bill, and heralded Hatch for his help in seeing it through.
"Senator Hatch has been a tireless leader and the architect of this bill that, for the first time in a decade, provides a fully funded, five-year program that supports critical investments in our public-transit system," said the Utah Transit Authority's interim president Jerry Benson.
Lane Beattie, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, called the bill "monumental" and said it will provide consistent investment in the state's transportation and give state agencies stability to plan for future projects.
"Taken together, these long-standing chamber priorities will provide the certainty to help businesses plan, create jobs, and strengthen Utah's economy," Beattie said in a statement released by Hatch's office.
The bill will allow Utah access to $1 billion in federal funds that the state wouldn't have had without the new measure. Some 70 projects would have been at risk without the bill, Hatch's office said, including work on Sardine Summit on State Road 23, and bus rapid transit in Provo and Orem.