Op-Eds

Apr 03 2017

THE HILL: Smart investments in America’s future

By Senator Deb Fischer

Recent news reports suggest the White House is considering a legislative strategy to pair tax reform and infrastructure together. Combining these objectives makes sense.

Conversations are beginning in Washington on how to provide relief for American families through tax reform. In the coming months, Congress will thoroughly examine the merits of proposals to update our outdated tax code. For too long, its inefficiencies have slowed business growth and kept Americans locked out of opportunity.

A closer look into our international tax system further illustrates this point. Currently, corporations headquartered in our country pay a U.S. corporate income tax on all income, including profits earned overseas. Foreign subsidiaries of American companies are hit twice: by the foreign country where the income was earned, and by the United States.

The model we use now is commonly known as a ‘worldwide’ system. Under this structure, U.S. companies stand at a disadvantage to our foreign competitors. Most often, no matter where our competitors are headquartered, they only pay tax to the country where they operate.

There’s talk of moving away from this and going instead to a territorial tax system. Most or all of corporate tax income earned abroad would be exempt from taxation. With this shift, we could level the playing field.

Under the current U.S. system, a corporation pays income tax when it returns, or ‘repatriates,’ its foreign earnings from overseas. Before bringing the money home, the corporation can hold it offshore to avoid paying U.S. income tax. Estimates from the Joint Committee on Taxation determine U.S. corporations are sitting on upwards of $2.6 trillion offshore.

As part of a transition to a new system, some have suggested setting a reasonable, one-time tax rate to bring that money back and reinvest it here in America. Should this happen, much of the new revenue will likely be used to lower the corporate tax rate. But there are other smart ways to use some of it, too.

I support using a portion of these tax reform revenues to fund infrastructure investments. I believe infrastructure is a core duty of the federal government. Investments in infrastructure strengthen our economy, public safety, and national security.

But as we think about an infrastructure package, we should avoid falling into the trap of stimulus style spending for its own sake. States know best their own transportation needs, not the federal government. And there’s no need to create a new program that works for various transportation projects in urban and rural states. We already have one.

In 2015, Congress passed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act and President Obama signed it into law. The FAST Act was the first long-term highway bill in more than a decade. In it, Congress established a formula freight program that provides every state with annual, guaranteed funding. Because of the freight program, states will have greater flexibility to work with key stakeholders and local officials to develop strategic investments in transportation.

How does it work?

The program funnels transportation funds to states and allows them to decide, on their terms, how to use it. The only stipulation: projects must somehow be connected to enhancing freight transportation movements. Railway-highway grade separations, truck-only lanes, and highway or bridge projects are examples of possible uses. By dedicating funding for rural and urban freight corridors, the program enhances the flow of commercial traffic and increases safety on our nation’s roads.

The true beauty of this program is it offers states the opportunity to make critical investments that best meet their specific geographic and infrastructure needs. For example, Nebraska can elect to invest in a rail-grade crossing or a truck parking lot along a rural road. At the same time, California could choose to invest in on-dock rail projects at our nation’s largest port complex, located just outside of Los Angeles. The national freight program works for all states, without leaving any behind.

As Congress and the Trump administration work to address our nation’s infrastructure needs with revenue from tax reform, expanding the national freight program should be an idea on the table. It would be a wise investment in America’s future.

Sen. Deb Fischer is the chairman of the Senate Surface Transportation Subcommittee.