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Tom Graves: Slash the federal gas tax to cure transportation woes

WASHINGTON -- As the Snowjam and its looming cousin have spurred debate on the Atlanta region’s transportation system, U.S. Rep. Tom Graves’ plan would just about remove the federal government from the equation.

The Ranger Republican pitched his bill to a friendly audience at the Heritage Action for America conservative policy summit Monday, a daylong affair promoting Republican bills that also included Rep. Tom Price of Roswell discussing health care.

Graves’ transportation plan – an outline he inherited from Sen. Jim DeMint when DeMint left the Senate and went to run Heritage -- would slash the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon to 3.7 cents per gallon.

The states, then, could make up the difference in any way they like -- replace the gas tax, put in toll roads, create a new consumption tax such as the T-SPLOST. That is, if they could pass any of those things.

So what’s wrong with having the federal government involved in transportation? Graves argued the feds spend too much on non-road improvements such as beautification. He’s all for bike lanes, but says those decisions should be made at the local level.

“Potholes and unfixed roads are there today because in many cases your tax dollars never come back to your states,” Graves said.

Georgia in the past has been a "donor state," providing more to the federal government in gas tax dollars than it gets back in road money. But since 2007, the federal government has made sure all states get more transportation money back from the feds than the gas taxes they put in, by taking money from the general fund for the highway trust fund.

The highway bill is due for re-authorization this year, and Graves said he hopes the idea can get in the policy bloodstream before then. The transportation committee has yet to oblige him.

The approach runs counter to influential groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has been looking at ways to get more federal money into infrastructure projects, not less.

Heritage Action has ticked off many Republicans for fiercely opposing their plans -- see Speaker John Boehner and Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland -- and Monday’s event was intended to show off who and what Heritage supports. You couldn’t find a seat when Sen. Ted Cruz was speaking.

Price presented his vision for health care reform alongside Tennessee Rep. Phil Roe. Both are doctors who have their own bills to replace Obamacare, and they each had praise for the other.

The bills have a lot in common – repeal Obamacare, expand health savings accounts, allow the purchase of health insurance across state lines, reform the medical malpractice system.

They also share the fate that neither will become law while President Barack Obama is in office and/or the Senate is controlled by Democrats. This, Price and Roe freely admitted.

“In three-to-five years we won’t be living under this legislation [Obamacare], under this law, because it doesn’t work,” Price said.

But House GOP leaders are trying to unite behind one plan that can pass the House this year to provide the party’s clear alternative ahead of the fall election. Price said he expects movement on that front in the “second quarter” of this year and that it likely would be a melding of ideas, perhaps including his own.

Feb. 11, 2014, 11:19 a.m.: This post has been corrected to reflect that Georgia, like every state, has not been a gas tax "donor state" since 2007.

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