President Bush’s suggestion that Congress spends most federal money for roads and bridges on certain members’ pet projects – and the rest of the country just gets “what’s ever left” – shows the president doesn’t know how the federal transportation money works, Sen. Patty Murray said Thursday.
On a swing through Eastern Washington during the congressional recess, Murray fielded predictable requests for federal help to fix local roads and bridges. She told about 35 people in the auditorium of Sadie Hilstead Middle School in Newport on Thursday morning that her staff would work with them to “see if there’s any help” for replacing the Usk Bridge over the Pend Oreille River.
The $30 million needed to replace the bridge would likely have to come through a variety of state and federal programs, said Murray, who heads the Senate subcommittee that decides how to spend money on transportation projects. “We can try to get small amounts in earmarks.”
Just a few hours earlier, Bush had suggested at a press conference that earmarks – the means by which a senator or representative can direct a specific amount of money to a particular project – were responsible for the nation’s crumbling bridges. Asked whether he would support an increase in the gasoline tax to rebuild problem bridges in light of last week’s bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Bush said he didn’t think that was the best solution.
Instead, Congress should change the way it spends money, he said.
“From my perspective, the way it seems to have worked is that each member gets to set his or her own priority first, and then what’s ever left is spent through a funding formula. That’s not the way to prioritize the people’s money,” Bush said. “So before we raise taxes, which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities. If bridges are a priority, let’s make sure we set that priority first and foremost, before we raise taxes.”
Asked about the president’s comments before a luncheon appearance at the Spokane Downtown Rotary – where requests for money for bridge repairs also came up – Murray said Bush is mistaken.
“It’s astounding to me that the president doesn’t understand that the vast majority (of transportation money) goes to states through a funding formula,” she said. “Only about 8 percent goes to earmarks.”
While she doesn’t support a new gasoline tax at this point, she criticized Bush for seeming to dismiss it out of hand.
“No one wants to talk about a gas tax. But the fact is we have an aging infrastructure in this country, and we can’t ignore it,” she said.
The federal government matches money the states and local governments spend on transportation projects through a formula that is set every six years, Murray said. That formula is likely to change to provide less from the federal government, she added.
In other topics during her stops in Newport and Spokane, Murray said she was sticking by her call to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq by March 31. Some should stay in the Middle East, she said, but their focus would be on a quick response to terrorism.
“We are bogged down in the middle of a civil war in Iraq,” she told some 150 gathered in the Spokane Club for the Rotary luncheon. “We have lost focus on the broader war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and around the globe.”
Murray, who voted against giving Bush the authority to send U.S. troops to Iraq, said the American military is doing “a tremendous job” in that country, but the Iraqi government is not meeting its goals. “They are not standing up and making the difficult decisions,” she said.
The state’s senior Democratic senator said she doubted there would be any change in the tax structure before the 2008 presidential election, and it would fall to the next occupant of the White House to suggest any overhaul.
She also said even though major overhaul of immigration laws failed earlier this year, Congress would take up a proposal this fall to address the need for seasonal farm workers.