Water Finance and Management: COMMENTARY: Numbers, Numbers, Numbers

As contractors, engineers and business owners, we deal with numbers every day.

As I give you a recent summary of how our elected officials have been behaving, I ask you to remember a scene from a movie that is over 20 years old: Dr. Evil in “Austin Powers,” demanding “$1 million…no, $100 billion!” It seems that Dr. Evil can’t grasp decades-exponential inflation.

And the funny thing is, our elected representatives seem to have the same issue, and we actually give them the job of managing our numbers (budgets) for us!  Aren’t we smart?

As I write this message, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have wrapped up an infrastructure meeting with President Donald Trump. While they apparently agreed to an infrastructure package in the $2 trillion range, they did not offer any details on how to pay for it. During the Democrats’ Legislative Retreat in April, Pelosi said she would seek at least $1 trillion for infrastructure spending. Trump’s FY2020 budget called for at least $1 trillion in infrastructure spending, but only $200 billion of this would come from the federal government, and no specific funding source was offered. $1 trillion, $2 trillion, not much difference here, right Dr. Evil?

Key members of Congress are also expressing their views about how to pay for an infrastructure package. Here is what some important lawmakers who have influence over infrastructure have said:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has indicated that infrastructure will be a priority but has not offered specifics and has to deal with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) Green New Deal first. House T&I Committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) wants a broad infrastructure package, but he hasn’t said what exactly it would look like or how it would be funded. He has personally expressed his support for a gas tax increase. House T&I Ranking Member Sam Graves (R-Mo.) has been a vocal supporter of transitioning to a vehicle-miles traveled tax for the Highway Trust Fund. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been relatively quiet on infrastructure issues … surprise!

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) has indicated that he wants his committee to address surface transportation reauthorization. Senate Commerce Committee Chair Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) has said that the gas tax is a “grown up” way to deal with infrastructure needs and has expressed his displeasure with the Trump administration’s lack of specifics to pay for its infrastructure proposal. My advice to Sen. Wicker: be careful putting the terminology “grown up” and “Congress” in the same sentence. It may be viewed as an oxymoron.

Congress also held hearings on the administration’s FY2020 budget requests for numerous agencies, including the EPA. The president’s budget proposed cuts to the State Revolving Fund (SRF) programs. Predictably, there was bipartisan skepticism about these cuts, and it is likely that Congress will reject these cuts as part of any final spending agreement.

During the House Interior and EPA Subcommittee hearing, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) highlighted the fact that current water infrastructure needs are over $700 billion, and that these needs are constantly growing.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler noted that while the president’s FY2020 budget includes about $2 billion for the two SRF programs, the administration believes the WIFIA loan program and programs created under the America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA) can help to address water needs.

Senate Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) raised her concerns about the impact of the administration’s proposed cuts to the Clean Water and Drinking Water SRF programs. Thank you, Chairwoman Murkowski!

Why is all this good, regardless of the numbers? Because between the House and Senate hearings, lawmakers are publicly stating their support for water infrastructure funding and challenging the administration on its proposals, even if no one has a clue as to how much it is going to cost.

Hence, Dr. Evil. No matter if it takes $2 trillion, $1 trillion, $200 billion, $700 million, $80 million, or Dr. Evil’s $1 million, the fact is that congressional lawmakers are finally listening to their constituents. Let’s continue to take the water infrastructure message to Capitol Hill and to our local elected officials.

By:  Dan Buckley
Source: Water Finance and Management