Last week I discussed the Obama administration’s decision to redistribute federal high-speed rail money rejected by Florida Gov. Rick Scott. I noted that “Florida taxpayers were spared their state’s share of maintaining the line, but they’re still going to be forced to help foot the bill for passenger-rail projects in other states.” My underlying point was that the states should be allowed to make their own transportation decisions with their own money.
Two Michigan state policymakers -- both Republican -- want to send the same message to Washington. State representatives Paul Opsommer and Tom McMillin have introduced resolutions that call on the federal government to allow the states to keep the federal gasoline taxes that they send to Washington. (Opsommer’s resolution would have to pass both state chambers, whereas McMillin’s resolution would only need to pass in the Michigan House.)
Michigan would no longer send its money to Washington so that it can be washed through Congress and the federal bureaucracy and sent back to Michigan (and the other states) with costly federal strings attached. Instead, highway financing and control would be left to the states. As a Cato essay on federal highway funding argues, re-empowering the states is clearly preferable to the current top-down approach:
With the devolution of highway financing and control to the states, successful innovations in one state would be copied in other states. And without federal subsidies, state governments would have stronger incentives to ensure that funds were spent efficiently. An additional advantage is that highway financing would be more transparent without the complex federal trust fund. Citizens could better understand how their transportation dollars were being spent.
The time is ripe for repeal of the current central planning approach to highway financing. Given more autonomy, state governments and the private sector would have the power and flexibility to meet the huge challenges ahead that America faces in highway infrastructure.
Some people, particularly those with an interest in the current convoluted arrangement, argue that it’s necessary for the enlightened beings in Washington to provide us with a national “vision” or “plan.” But the redirection of Florida’s high-speed rail allotment to other states shows that decision-making in Washington usually has more to do with politics than economics.
Conspicuously left out of the Obama administration’s re-spreading of high-speed cheese was Wisconsin, which tried to grab some of the Florida money for an intercity rail line that connects the state to Chicago. Reason’s Sam Staley points out that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker also said “no thanks” to the administration’s high-speed rail money. Staley says “the snubbing of the State of Wisconsin smells a lot like political payback,” and links to a piece from a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel columnist who doesn’t have any doubts.
If either or both of the Michigan resolutions pass, Congress can simply choose to ignore the message. Hopefully, more states will take a cue from Michigan, which could make it harder for the folks in Washington to simply look the other way. Regardless, Opsommer and McMillan deserve a round of applause for trying to score one for fiscal federalism.