Lawmakers employ gimmicks to pay for highway funds

WASHINGTON — The House has passed a bill to add $10.8 billion to the federal trust funds providing highway and transit funds to prevent them from running dry next month and to buy more time for Congress to draft a new highway bill next year. Critics say the legislation relies on budget gimmicks. The measure’s financing provisions are:

—Pension “smoothing.” Raises $6.4 billion by allowing companies to reduce the amount that they contribute to their pension funds now and make up for it later. Since pension contributions are tax deductible, companies would owe more tax revenue in the next few years as more of their earnings are taxed. But in the later years, they would be able to claim higher deductions from larger contributions to their pension funds, costing the government revenue. Over time, the pension measure doesn’t raise revenue. But over the next 10 years — the time frame used to estimate the cost of legislation — it does. Critics warn it could cost taxpayers in the long run because taxpayers could be on the hook if an insured pension plan can’t meet its obligations and has to turn to the government’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. for help.

—Customs user fees. Raises $3.5 billion by extending for one year (2024) various user fees paid to the Customs Service for goods, vehicles and people entering the U.S. Critics say it’s a gimmick that allows lawmakers to spend the money now and not pay it back for 10 years.

—Leaking underground storage tanks. Transfers $1 billion from an overfunded trust fund established to pay for cleaning up sites fouled by pollution from leaking underground storage tanks, including those at gas stations. Most problem sites have been cleaned up and the leaking tanks fund runs a surplus of about $200 million a year.

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