Opinion: It’s familiar story on infrastructure

As President Biden met this week with Congressional leaders on his infrastructure proposal, there was no doubt on Capitol Hill that many in both parties would like to forge an agreement on an expanded plan for new roads and bridges.

That’s the easy part.

Agreeing on the funding for it is the problem.

“A lot of the disagreement is around how to pay for it,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged.

“We will have to raise some revenues to responsibly finance this kind of investment in infrastructure,” Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff said earlier this month, though it’s clear there is little common ground on funding in Congress.

The White House proposed raising the corporate tax rate to 28 percent to pay for the infrastructure plan – rolling back part of the Trump tax cuts — but that’s a lead balloon for Republicans.

“We’re not interested in reopening the 2017 tax bill,” Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell said after the White House meeting.  “That’s our red line.”

While budget groups say the Biden tax plans might not pay for his package’s $2.3 trillion price tag, that’s better than the past two administrations.

In 2011, President Obama proposed a $328 billion infrastructure plan — but never filled in the blanks on how to pay for it. 

President Trump did the same.  Even though he talked repeatedly about an over $1 trillion infrastructure package, Mr. Trump never came close to finalizing the money details.

And when GOP Senators floated a $568 billion infrastructure package a few weeks ago, the funding details were hazy, with talk about user fees on electric vehicles, unspent federal Coronavirus money and other options.

Instead of spending, some GOP lawmakers like U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-West Point, have proposed using tax breaks to spur the development of high-speed internet in rural areas.

But tax incentives are no different on Uncle Sam’s bottom line than regular spending.  $1 billion in infrastructure spending that’s not paid for is the same as $1 billion in tax breaks that is not offset.  It’s still red ink.

The most direct way to bring in money for highway and bridge projects is through the federal gasoline tax, which is 18.4 cents per gallon.  But with both parties more than ready to demagogue any proposed increase, the gas tax has been stuck at that level since 1993.

Another option is letting states levy tolls on interstates to fund the construction of extra lanes and other improvements — but no states have taken that option, which is already in federal law.

“It’s time to be bold as we build our infrastructure for the next century,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta.

Calling for a ‘bold’ infrastructure plan is easy.

Getting a deal on how to pay for new roads and bridges is not.

Jamie Dupree has covered national politics and the Congress from Washington, D.C. since the Reagan administration. His column appears weekly in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For more, check out his Capitol Hill newsletter at http://jamiedupree.substack.com

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