IF THE ONLY difference between the House and Senate roads bills was the money, it wouldn’t be that tough to resolve.
Assuming that senators’ assumptions are accurate about how few people will bother to claim a rebate on their gas taxes, the gap isn’t as big as it looks: The House plan raises $520 million a year for roads, the Senate $640 million a year.
There is that matter of the Senate stealing $160 million a year from everything else in government, for which there is no policy justification and along the lines of which the House has wisely said nevermore. Whether to cross that line again is a difference about more than just dollars and cents. (Democrats, the most adamant about not raiding the general fund, crossed the line because part of the raid — tax credits for poor college students and for the working poor — have the same effect as new spending programs they want added to the state budget.)
But it would be easy enough to reduce the $160 million raid in return for reducing some of the Senate’s vehicle-related fees, and still generate more road money than the House plan does. And some senators think the $160 million raid could be reduced as early as next year, through a process that’s too complicated to explain, particularly since it’s so speculative. So even a small reduction during House-Senate negotiations could get the $160 million raid down to an amount that could be acceptable to people who want to improve our roads — depending on what we get in return.
And there’s the rub: What we get in return. The reason it probably won’t be easy to reach an agreement is that the debate is not just about where to land on a continuum between two dollar figures. It’s also about lawmakers’ approach to government. And political power.
Senate leaders gave in and accepted the most crucial part of the House’s plan to reform Transportation Department governance: to let the governor remove his appointees to the Transportation Commission without getting the blessings of local legislators, as he must under current law. This acquiescence almost certainly was not to mollify the House but to get more votes from holdout Republicans in the Senate — and it worked, most dramatically in the person of Senate Republican Leader Shane Massey.
The House bill also abolishes the Joint Transportation Review Committee, which screens nominees. It’s hard to argue against a screening process. What’s easy to argue against is this particular screening process, which is unnecessarily convoluted and burdensome and (among other hoops) requires a nominee to get the approval of a majority of the legislators who live in the congressional district he would represent. Worse, the law says nominees who aren’t approved within 45 days are “ deemed to have been disapproved.” That means we’ll never know who torpedoed a nomination.
The delegation-review process actually grew out of the House’s attempt last year to have commissioners confirmed by both the House and the Senate. Gubernatorial nominees are traditionally confirmed by the Senate, and senators weren’t willing to share this prerogative. But these local legislative delegations had traditionally appointed the commissioners themselves, and the House didn’t want to be cut entirely out of the loop when it gave that duty to governors. The solution: Give the House members equal say in what is essentially a pre-confirmation, while requiring the traditional Senate confirmation once the nominees pass screening.
I suspect the Senate would give up the delegation approval if the House agreed to Senate confirmation. But the House is insisting again this year on confirmation by both the Senate and the House, so it’s easy to envision not just a stalemate but, worse, a repeat of last year, when the House held out for full legislative confirmation, the Senate abandoned a fairly good reform plan and the Legislature passed the monstrosity that no one had ever seen before.
Frankly, it ought to be easy to just accept the House reform plan and the basics of the Senate money plan, but as usual, Senate support of its bill is a house of cards: so fragile that removing any piece could kill it.
So we probably need to be thinking about other ways to fix the governance problem. An obvious first step is getting rid of the secret torpedo. There should be no place in government for allowing legislators to kill gubernatorial nominees in secret. Instead of declaring a nominee rejected if a majority of legislators don’t approve him in 45 days, why not declare him accepted if they don’t disapprove him within 45 days?
Would that, along with letting governors remove their appointees, be enough reform to justify a $160 million raid on the general fund? What about a $120 million raid? With the possibility that it could be reduced next year? I don’t know. But I do know that Sen. Massey and his House counterpart, Republican Leader Gary Simrill, are right to put reform at the top of their agenda for road-funding legislation. And getting real reform always comes at a cost.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.