America’s anemic fiscal health and highway funding were the underlying themes discussed by U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, Friday (June 17) at the Bentonville-Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce’s Business Matters breakfast.
Womack, the former Mayor of Rogers, did not mince words in his description of Congress and the country.
“I am not running for president of the United States.” Womack joked, saying he is one of only a few Republicans in Washington that isn’t.
“And we’ve got problems,” he added. “I know that I’m suppose to try and put a happy face and a chamber-of-commerce spin on things but it’s hard to do that right now with what’s going on in our country.”
Womack described the climate in Washington as “chaotic at times and anything but regular order.” As a member of the House Appropriations Committee that funnels roughly $1 trillion to 12 different sub-committees that form the entire discretionary budget, Womack said the vice is ever squeezing in all directions with no sign of relief.
He said constant distractions from 24-hour media and social media is a major hinderance to any progress. Womack described recent events of how working on a bill on the House floor for the Department of Interior was completely derailed over the Confederate flag agenda.
“We were in the middle of the process, I mean the middle of it when Robert E. Lee rode in on his horse,” Womack said. “Then a couple of amendments were made regarding the sale of Confederate flags and their display in national cemeteries, which are part of the Department of Interior, and several members of Congress got wrapped around the axle of this thing and the entire appropriations bill was pulled from the floor. That should tell you how broken this system has gotten,” Womack told the group.
He said media driven distractions, as tragic as they may be, are “flavors of the day.” He also said there will likely be renewed discussion on gun laws following the recent shootings and killing of four U.S. Marines in Chattanooga, Tenn.
“It’s sad, but it’s also why so many times we can’t get the important done … and why we face $18 trillion in debt,” Womack said. “Sometimes these constant distractions make that old mayor’s job in Rogers look really good.”
But Womack told the group he is dedicated to his role as lawmaker and will run for re-election. Womack, serving in his third two-year term, was first elected in 2010 and took office in January 2011.
“The appropriations committee did advance 12 bills. Six of them passed the House Floor, and there will likely be no more time for any more.” Womack said.
Because there is not enough time to pass the other six, he expects there will be a short term resolution funding discussion in early September giving them a small window of time to find funding solutions to keep the government from shutting down Oct. 1.
“This will likely mean more cliff diving and kicking the can, the major varsity sports in Congress,” Womack said.
Despite the challenges, Womack said he remains hopeful the divided U.S. House would be able accomplish real work. He said there is an opportunity for both sides to champion the benefits of compromise.
“Both sides are going to have to give up something. Entitlement reform has got to happen. It’s two-thirds of the total U.S. budget and by 2032, 2033 or 2034 entitlement spending will be 100% of the total U.S. budget if something is not done. There is going to be a day of reckoning and it’s not that far away,” Womack said.
He said revenue also will have to be addressed by the Republicans by way of tax reform. And, he said the defense budget should be based on real threats and not based on budgetary restraints.
“While the budget has to be dealt with, it’s equally important that Washington get out of the way so businesses can grow. My friends at Rheem in Fort Smith told me this past week that they would love to grow and expand operations but they are hurdled by 25 regulatory rulemaking procedures that they have no way to forecast the cost of,” Womack said.
HIGHWAY TRUST FUND
Womack spent much of the time discussing the underfunded Highway Trust Fund. He said there is enough money to do certain projects but not enough to execute what has already been authorized. Already this year due to federal funding uncertainty, roughly 75 Arkansas projects with an estimated value of $335 million have been delayed.
“This is incredibly important to Northwest Arkansas and the rest of the state. The short term fix recently passed by the House is merely kicking the can a little further down the road. We need a permanent deal that addresses the shortfalls in the Highway Trust Fund,” Womack said.
Sitting through a stoplight three times as he exited Interstate 49 in Bentonville to attend the breakfast event, Womack said he wondered how long it would be before quality of life in Northwest Arkansas begins to suffer because there is no way to effectively move people around.
“The longer we put off repairs and expansions the more it will cost us in the end when a bridge collapses. It’s just a matter of when,” Womack said.
Raising the gas tax is one option, but Womack said there would have to be a trigger that allowed the tax to change as fuel prices rose. He said the 18.5 cent tax set in the late 1970s was not indexed to inflation. If indexed, it would be around 30 cents today. He does support the idea to tax drivers at the end of the year based on the number of miles they drive.
He said the days of earmarks are long gone under the watch of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. It was an earmark secured by the late U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt, R-Harrison, that built Interstate 540 (to be eventually part of the Interstate 49 corridor) between Fayetteville and Alma. Womack sees no way for regions to secure one-time funding for projects like the proposed $350 million – or more – I-49 connection from Alma to Fort Smith across the Arkansas River.
SALES TAX LEGISLATION
Womack also has been an advocate for sales tax “fairness” regarding Internet purchases with online retailers, especially those out of state.
Womack sponsored the Remote Taxation Parity Act, but said there is plenty of opposition. He said state, county and local governments are losing tax revenue from residents shopping online out-of-state and paying no sales tax. He foresees a time when the losses are significant enough that governments will have raise taxes to cover the short fall, something they wouldn’t have to do if the were able to collect what is owed.
“If something is not done to level the playing field you may soon be going to your hardware store or jeweler downtown and be greeted by plywood because they cannot compete with out-of-state warehouses selling goods duty free,” Womack said.
Womack said he will continue to push for the law no matter how unpopular it may make him with some constituents.