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Returning Congress Faces Threat to Remove Billions in Authorized Highway Funding

US Capitol

When Congress returns to work on Sept. 6 after a long summer recess, lawmakers face a decision on whether to maintain support for highway program funding levels they set just last year in the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, or whether they will act to weaken those investments.

A proposal by the Senate Appropriations Committee for fiscal 2017 would strip away $2.2 billion in old contract authority through a budgetary rescission targeted at certain highway program categories, an action that could limit the ability of state departments of transportation to use all of their authorized funds.

In effect, that would mean taking some contract authority away this year after approving modest increases in highway project investments through the FAST Act last December.

House appropriators have not embraced that Senate provision, but Congress will be working on a fast-paced schedule next month to act on must-pass legislation. That includes passing some form of a budget measure before Sept. 30 to prevent a shutdown of government agencies starting Oct. 1.

"The risk to state DOTs is that in the rush to pass a budget measure next month - even a temporary continuing resolution - Congress would include that rescission," said Bud Wright, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

"It took years for Congress to pass the five-year FAST Act, and in those years of uncertainty many states had to delay needed transportation projects," he said. "Now, state agencies do not need a new round of uncertainty from Washington about whether they can utilize billions of dollars in already authorized contract authority."

In May, AASHTO joined the National Governors Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures is urging the Senate to remove the $2.2 billion rescission from a fiscal 2017 funding bill, and urged the House not to accept it. But the provision is still there as lawmakers return for a whirlwind September session before breaking again to campaign for the November elections.

The FAST Act had also included a rescission of $7.6 billion but deferred that one to take effect in 2020, giving states time to prepare and opponents time to urge Congress to drop it.

However, the one now before lawmakers could become part of the annual appropriations process, with little time to consider the implications. Many observers think Congress could end up passing a short-term funding bill next month, and returning after the elections to negotiate a government-wide "omnibus" spending measure.

Either way - whether rushing to pass a spending bill in September or holding broader talks after the election on an omnibus measure - transportation groups will be challenged to head off threats to funding levels as lawmakers consider how to fund the entire government in the coming year.

Source: AASHTO Journal.