This vote would have allowed states to “opt out” of the federal program that provides funding for highways and other transportation projects. States choosing to leave the program would have continued to collect money to fund their projects, but would have been exempt from federal environmental regulations, safety requirements, and other rules.
Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) offered the amendment, arguing that it would have helped states reduce the costs of construction. Most federal funding for transportation projects comes from the gasoline tax. The federal government collects the tax and distributes it to states. In exchange for the funding, states are required to take steps to protect the environment and sensitive cultural areas, pay fair wages, add “beautification” projects to their plans, and meet other obligations.
Sen. Portman argued that these requirements drive up the cost of construction, and that states could maintain highways better and more cheaply if they were given the flexibility to ignore federal rules.
“For decades, Washington has collected state gas taxes through its highway program, taken its cut off the top, and then attached burdensome mandates to the funds before sending them back to the states. It hasn't worked,” Sen. Portman said. “With the economy struggling, we need to provide states with the ability to move quickly and innovatively to implement their transportation priorities instead of a one-size-fits-all solution from Washington.”
Opponents of Sen. Portman’s amendment argued that the federal government, not individual states, should bear primary responsibility for maintaining the national transportation network. President Dwight Eisenhower designed the system that way because it ensured highways were built with the national interest in mind and that all states would benefit – even those in rural or poorer regions of the country, they said. They warned that Sen. Portman’s amendment would lead to the breakdown of this principle.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) added that the amendment, if passed, would have allowed states to avoid federal laws requiring equal access for people with disabilities.
Sen. Portman’s amendment was defeated by a vote of 30-68. Voting “yea” were 30 Republicans. Voting “nay” were 53 Democrats and 15 Republicans. As a result, the Senate killed the effort to allow states to avoid environmental, safety, and other regulations by opting out of the federal program that funds transportation projects.