April 4, 2004

Threat of a presidential veto is not likely to steer Congress away from providing federal money for two significant highway projects in Delaware, according to Nathan Hayward. "Remember," the secretary of transportation told Delaforum, "it's an election year."

Consequently, Hayward said he is not worried that the Delaware Department of Transportation will be unable to begin design of the 'flyover' bridge to better link Interstate 95 and Delaware 1 in the vicinity of Christiana Mall and to start building a new bridge over the Indian River Inlet in saltwater Sussex County.

The feds would provide $5 million apiece for those projects during the coming fiscal year under provisions of the controversial fiscal 2005 transportation construction bill which is about to be hammered out by a House-Senate conference committee. Both Delaware projects are multi-year ventures and qualify for continuing federal financing.

In late March President Bush issued an unequivocal challenge to the U.S. House of Representatives to either cut down the annual spending authorization to an amount he deems more appropriate or risk its being the object of his first rejection of enacted legislation.

The House apparently figured that was a bluff and decided to call him on it. It passed, by a wide margin, a measure with a $256 billion price tag. That was considerably less than the $318 billion measure the Senate passed in February, but still higher than the $256 billion ceiling the President set.

The votes in both chambers -- 357 to 75 in the House and 76 to 2 in the Senate -- were well in excess of the two-thirds margin required to override a veto. But Hayward doesn't think it will come to that.

"I've got to believe the Republican White House is going to find it very difficult to veto a bill in a year when the President is trying to get re-elected," he said. Job creation and the lack thereof already is regarded as the top domestic campaign issue and highway construction is a major employment generator. Moreover, Hayward added, even Republican lawmakers are not likely to jeopardize their own re-election prospects by not voting to override should a veto actually materialize.

Delaware's senators, Joseph Biden and Thomas Carper, both Democrats, voted in favor of the Senate version of the bill. Congressman Michael Castle voted against the House version. Castle said he continues to support but Delaware projects and will "continue my efforts to ensure they are included in the final conference report."

The conference committee will resolve the differences between the two measures.

In addition to the two large Delaware projects, which are 'earmarked' in the House version, the bills provide omnibus allotments to be spent more or less at the discretion of state officials. Delaware's slice of that pie would be about $130 million in the Senate version or between $126 million and $128 million in the House version. Both sums would top the $120 million received in the current fiscal year. The federal fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

In legislative parlance, an 'earmark' is a designation of money for a specific project. It is an allegation that many of the nearly 3,000 'earmarks' in the pending legislation are 'pork' that is the nub of the controversy over whether it is too generous. 'Pork', another piece of jargon, means a project intended to appeal to voters or personally favored by a legislator, but holding relatively little benefit for the general public. 

Again with a nod toward their local constituencies, some lawmakers have objected to the formulas used to decide how much of an allocation the various states receive relative to the amount of money they collect in federal gasoline tax. Castle said his position is that all highway spending should be financed by the gasoline tax and not general tax revenue because "that would lead to deficit spending.: 

There is, as of now, no announced timetable for the House and Senate conferees to reconcile differences between the two versions and to come up with a final one, which will have to be enacted by both chambers before anything is sent up Pennsylvania Avenue to the President's desk. Hayward said he is hopefully, the issue is resolved before July 1, the start of Delaware's fiscal year.

2004. All rights reserved.

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