NASHVILLE - U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., on Thursday proposed a bipartisan plan to raise federal gas and diesel taxes for the first time in more than two decades as an answer to long-standing funding woes threatening to stall the nation's highway, bridge and transit programs.
With the federal Highway Trust Fund expected to run out of money in August, Corker said he is joining with U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., on a proposal he hopes will provide a permanent, stable solution.
It would raise the current 18.4 cent-per-gallon gas tax and 24.4 cent-per-gallon tax on diesel by 12 cents over the next two years. A 6-cent increase would come next year and a like boost the following year.
The tax would then be pegged to inflation to avoid future shortfalls.
Corker, a developer, former Chattanooga mayor and one-time state finance commissioner, said he comes from a conservative state and considers himself a conservative as well.
"What I've learned ... is that if something's worth having, it's worth paying for," Corker said in a conference call with reporters. "What I've watched up here take place -- time and time again -- people huff and puff about spending and those types of things."
But when it comes to something popular, Corker said, lawmakers "on the left and the right, I hate to say, are willing to throw our kids under the bus ... through increased indebtedness to allow something popular to them to exist that day."
Congress has "played chicken" on transportation and other important programs since 2008, Corker charged.
To make the plan palatable to fellow Republicans, Corker is calling for offsetting the fuel tax increases with other tax cuts. Corker cited as a possibility an annual bill in which Congress scrambles to preserve personal or corporate income tax deductions.
One of them allows Tennesseans to deduct their state and local sales taxes -- among the nation's highest -- on their federal returns. Corker said he's open to other suggestions. But he pointed out that making the annually extended tax deductions permanent "scores" well on the Congressional Budget Office's 10-year projections on the federal budget because it doesn't include temporary tax cuts in its estimates.
Noting that most Republicans have sworn off tax increases under a pledge sponsored by Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, Corker said he checked with the group. Because the fuel tax increases would be permanently offset, ATR doesn't consider it a tax hike, Corker said.
"The way it scores makes it so people can actually vote for this and not violate the pledge," Corker said. "It may sound too good to be true, but it's just the way things are scored in Washington, D.C."
But the proposal is already coming under attack from one Washington-based conservative group. Club for Growth President Chris Chocola later on Wednesday issued a statement calling the plan "a $164 billion tax increase, plain and simple."
Chocola said that instead of "standing up to special interests who feast on a chronically bankrupt Highway Trust Fund year after year, Sen. Corker and Sen. Murphy have essentially decided that throwing more money into a black hole is a good path forward."
The solution is to "devolve highway funding to the states and let them fund their own infrastructure needs," Chocola said.
In Tennessee, slightly more than half of the state Department of Transportation's $1.8 billion budget -- $975 million -- comes from federal funds. That includes highway, transit and aviation.
Right now, the state is delaying the letting of 13 projects totaling more than $100 million until next year because the federal Highway Trust Fund is expected to run dry in late August, according to the TDOT.
The delays affect two major Southeast Tennessee projects. One is the long-planned widening of East Brainerd Road (State Route 320) in Hamilton County from Graysville Road to Bel Air Road. The total cost of the project is $11.9 million.
The other is construction of a $21.7 million interchange on State Route 311 in Bradley County.
State Transportation Commissioner John Schroer said in a statement that "I appreciate Sen. Corker's efforts to address the insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund, which is already affecting the progress of transportation projects in Tennessee."
He said as chairman of the Finance Committee for the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials, "I will continue to encourage members of Congress to address critical need for a long-term reauthorization bill."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.