This vote was on an amendment that would stop state governments from padding their budgets by selling off highways while still collecting federal funds to maintain them.
The federal government distributes funding to states for road building and maintenance. The money is distributed using a formula that takes into account the miles of highways in each state. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) offered this amendment to stop what they saw as an abuse of the system.
The senators sought to stop a practice in which states – often motivated by the need to close a budget shortfall – sell the right to collect tolls on a stretch of highway. Under this arrangement, a private company or hedge fund would essentially buy the road and become responsible for its upkeep. But too often, motorists pay the price as tolls skyrocket and maintenance is neglected, Sen. Durbin said. Even though the state government is no longer responsible for the road, it continues collecting federal taxpayer dollars to do so, he said.
“The federal government shouldn't incentivize local and state governments to make rash, short-term decisions that lease transportation projects for generations just to solve temporary budget shortfalls,” Sen. Durbin said. “This amendment will not stop states from privatizing roads, but it will stop the federal taxpayer from paying twice for privatized roads.”
Other senators argued that the amendment represented an invasion of states’ rights.
“It is against the 10th amendment. It is morally wrong to take away a State's right to enhance its capital assets,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) said.
The amendment was passed by a vote of 50-47. Voting “yea” were 44 Democrats, including a majority of progressives, and 6 Republicans. Voting “nay” were 39 Republicans and 8 Democrats. As a result, the Senate passed legislation to prevent state governments from padding their budgets by selling off highways while still collecting federal funds to maintain them.