As Americans buy less gas, they're inadvertently cutting into money for highway projects.

As Americans buy less gas, they're inadvertently cutting into money for highway projects.

As Americans buy less gas, they're inadvertently cutting into money for highway projects.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
July 21 2008 6:26 AM

Road Kill

The Los Angeles Timesleads with a look at how the rising price of gasoline is cutting into the money available for highway projects. People driving less and buying more fuel-efficient vehicles means the government gets less money from the federal gasoline tax, which is tied to gallons sold rather than to total amount of money spent. The Washington Post'slead notes that despite a stepped-up effort to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, workers are still being arrested in much higher numbers than supervisors and executives. The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox, and the LAT off-leads, with Barack Obama's meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul. The presumptive Democratic nominee said more military resources need to be shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan, which he described as the "central front on our battle against terrorism."

USA Today leads with a new study saying that  confusing ballots continue to be a problem in the run up to the November elections. Although billions have been spent in overhauling voting systems, not enough attention has been paid to ballot design, which could lead to lots of confusion at the polls, particularly if the predicted influx of new voters materializes. The New York Times' lead notes that ballot design is just one of the problems these new voters could face; many will also encounter new voting technology that might not work exactly as planned. At least 11 states will use new voting equipment in November, and election officials are so worried about possible malfunctions that several states are planning to order lots of backup paper ballots just in case. While more poll workers could help alleviate the problems and confusion, several states say they simply don't have the money to hire everyone they need.

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As Americans buy less fuel, the federal highway trust fund could face a deficit of $3.2 billion or more by next year. This shortfall is worrying lawmakers who say they're already having trouble fixing the nation's aging highway infrastructure with the existing funds. Some say the federal government could cut its federal highway spending by one-third beginning in October. Senators are considering a proposal to shift $8 billion to the highway trust fund, but some Republicans complain that doing so would merely increase the budget deficit without providing a long-term solution. Lawmakers will have to figure out whether it continues to make sense to fund highway construction with gas tax if the goal is to continually reduce gasoline consumption. In the short-term, it should come as no surprise that no one is willing even to discuss increasing the gas tax in an election year.

The WP notes that the Homeland Security Department is using tactics "similar to law enforcement techniques honed in developing cases against mobsters and drug lords" to target those who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. But the department's assistant secretary for policy said Congress is to blame for failing to address measures that could improve the corporate enforcement effort. "Why are employers not punished more often? Because the laws we have don't really authorize that," he said. The statement echoes the sentiments frequently expressed by labor unions and others, who say the government focuses on the illegal workers without targeting the corporations that hire them. Critics say neither party is serious about solving the problem: Democrats rely on support from labor unions and Republicans don't want to risk angering their business backers.

Obama arrived in Iraq today and is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The LAT notes that Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, jumped into the debate and said that setting a specific deadline to withdraw combat troops from Iraq could lead to "dangerous" consequences. But more interesting is the continuing fallout from Maliki's interview with Der Spiegel, a German magazine, in which he seemed to endorse Obama's 16-month withdrawal timetable. U.S. officials contacted Maliki's office asking for a clarification, and later in the day, one of his aides released a statement saying the magazine had "misunderstood and mistranslated" the prime minister's comments but failed to cite specifics. The LAT notes that it marked the "second time in recent days" that a senior Iraqi official found himself taking back comments relating to a withdrawal timetable for U.S. forces.

"Unfortunately, Der Spiegel was not accurate," the Iraqi government spokesman tells the NYT, which does the best job in advancing the story. But the NYT notes that the translator for the interview works for the Iraqi government and not Der Spiegel. The paper even got the actual audio recording of the interview from the German magazine to corroborate its findings. The result? Not surprisingly, the NYT's translation is remarkably similar to Der Spiegel's, and, even more interesting, it was Maliki who brought up Obama's name without prompting. As much as administration officials tried to dismiss the statements, the NYT reports, American commanders "expressed surprise and confusion" over the remarks.

Meanwhile, a top adviser to Maliki emphasized Iraqi politicians are facing lots of domestic pressure to push for withdrawal. But although the paper doesn't mention it, there might be a simpler reason why Maliki seemed to bring up Obama's name without prompting. According to a (very limited) survey of Iraqis published in the NYT last week, Obama is extremely popular in Iraq, even among those who may not necessarily agree with his broad plans for withdrawal. In the NYT's op-ed page, Roger Cohen writes of how French President Nicolas Sarkozy will hold a press conference with Obama when the Democrat visits France on Friday. Why? "Sarkozy gets a touch of Obamaura," writes Cohen. "Such reflected glory can do no harm, as Sarkozy the opportunist knows well." Perhaps Maliki is seeking "a touch of Obamaura" for himself.

The LAT and WSJ front, and everyone notes, that The Dark Knight sold a whopping $155.3 million in tickets over the weekend and set a new three-day record (though it must be said that the LAT's lead is more than a little unfortunate: "Holy opening weekend, Batman!"). If the estimates are accurate, the total surpassed the previous record holder, Spider-Man 3, by $4.2 million. But the LAT notes that some were quick to question the figures and say that if the ticket prices are adjusted for inflation, Spidey may have sold more tickets. Regardless, it seems clear that it was the biggest box-office weekend in U.S. history, with total sales estimated at $255 million.

Isn't that interesting? In a strange coincidence, the WPand LATpublish almost identical corrections today after they both identified Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq's president rather than prime minister in a story and headline yesterday.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.