Jobs Bill May Threaten Reauthorization

| February 5, 2010

Where we once watched the ‘stimulus’ legislation for clues on both what money would go where and when reauthorization might be done, we can now watch the ‘jobs’ legislation. Expect it to lead the news next week the way health care used to last week.

One troubling aspect of the legislation is that it is not as narrowly focused as it could be. Given that politics will dominate its final form that’s no surprise. But by comparison the ARRA ‘stimulus’ legislation might turn out to be simplicity personified. The jobs bills backers and creators, and all those who will want a slice of pie from it, are cobbling together legislation which may well have both significant and long terms effects on other programs vital to the construction industry, thus not only creating jobs but playing poker with the law of unexpected consequences. 

For example, CQPolitics reports that,

Among the measures being eyed for the package are a new tax credit for business hiring, short-term extensions of federal unemployment insurance and COBRA health insurance subsidies for the unemployed, and an extension of the surface transportation authorization. Extensions of economic stimulus programs that give small businesses liberalized expensing rules and state and local governments assistance through a tax credit bond program also are in the mix.

All have ramifications. But the possibility that this legislation will postpone at best, or derail at worst, reauthorization is especially troubling. ARRA has generally been considered something that will run its course, and a new surface transportation bill would follow, hopefully closely, on its heels. That of course would require Congress to have a replacement ready before  ARRA funding runs out. A smooth transition between the two acts of Congress would not only avoid a dangerous gap in funding authorization it would also give contractors and government agencies a chance to begin some long-term planning, something woefully, and worryingly, hard to find these days in the transportation infrastructure world.

But if a jobs bill can be sold as a sort of Stimulus II and at the same time it includes some provisions that Congress can argue takes the presure of the need for a new surface transportation act, we may be heading into a labyrinth. Especially if its backers argue that is doing the work of a reauthorization bill.

There has not been a good argument raised that substitutions or extensions are superior to a new surface reauthorization bill. They aren’t. We need to look ahead in terms of years if not decades when it comes to our transportation system. If we don’t we will continue to see smaller projects take the money. Resurfacing and potholing will become a bigger and bigger sector of the industry and new highways and bridges will become a smaller sector.

If reauthorization gets tangled up in a jobs bill it may just get lost there for quite some time. And will it then be able to return to the table in a form we recognize?

In the meantime the jobs bill may just be worth its weight in gold. According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

Today as states await action on a jobs bill, the list of ‘ready-to-go’ state infrastructure projects has surpassed the 9,800 mark. These projects, valued at more than $79 billion, will give state departments of transportation the resources necessary to put hundreds of thousands of people back to work, on projects that will improve travel and boost the economy.

In 2009, the transportation sector received just 6 percent of economic recovery funds, yet spending on state highway, bridge, transit, port, rail, and aviation projects has accounted so far for more than 24 percent of the jobs created. According to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, at least 250,000 direct, on-projects jobs, as well as hundreds of thousands of indirect jobs, were the result of 7,900 highway and transit projects that have broken ground across the country.

It would seem that a jobs bill that keeps its hands of reauthorization might be just what we need. So, Stimlus to Jobs to Reauthorization. Just like Tinkers to Evers to Chance.

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