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When it comes to federal highway funding, a new report says that either all states are winners including Utah by receiving more money than their residents contribute. Or Utah is among the biggest losers, receiving far less than its fair share.
The Government Accountability Office, a research arm of Congress, says it depends on which set of statistics is viewed, bringing to mind Mark Twain's famous quote: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."
The GAO, after evaluating various sets of statistics, concludes that all states were winners during the five years that the most recent highway bill, called SAFETEA-LU, was in effect. Congress has passed several short-term extensions of that law as it fights over a new bill and funding formulas.
"From 2005 to 2009, every state received more funding for highway programs than they contributed," the report said.
For example, it said Utah received $1.10 for every dollar that it contributed through gasoline taxes and other highway-user fees. That return ranked No. 38 among the states. Alaska had the highest at $4.99 for every $1 contributed, and Texas had the lowest at $1.03.
How could every state get more than it gave? The study said it was because Congress augmented the fund with $30 million from general revenues over five years and approved spending more than highway revenues themselves generated. House Republicans have said such bailouts should end, but Congress has been reluctant to either raise gasoline taxes or cut highway spending.
The GAO said other stats which look at relative shares that states contribute and receive create what it said can be a misperception that some states were "donors" to highway funds and received less than they gave, while others were "donees." These figures do not include all highway funds given to states.
Using that figuring, it said Utah is one of 28 "donor" states, receiving only an 89.2 percent relative share compared with other states, also ranking No. 38 among the states. The GAO noted that the old highway bill had an equity bonus program to address rate-of-return issues based on such statistics. That was designed to guarantee a minimum return to each state, but the GAO said nearly all states received equity bonus funding.
The agency said formulas that focus on ensuring that states receive roughly what they contribute overrides such other important considerations as performance and accountability.
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the report bolsters his argument that Congress has been too consumed by the "donor" and "donee" debate and should focus more on what the nation as a whole needs.
"Using the rate of return as our rationale for how we spend our limited transportation dollars simply detracts from the national focus," Rahall said in a news release, "when we ought to look at the larger picture and determine what investments best help create American jobs and grow our economy."