White House aims sales pitch for infrastructure plan at the states

By: - April 12, 2021 4:30 pm

The infrastructure proposal awaiting Senate action would provide $351 billion over five years for highway and bridge funding. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

WASHINGTON — Iowa’s 4,571 bridges in poor condition. Florida’s $100 billion in damages over the last decade from extreme weather events. The 1 in 4 Idahoans with no access to broadband internet.

In the next phase of President Joe Biden’s sales pitch for his $2 trillion infrastructure package, his administration is framing its argument around the mounting, unmet needs in states as it seeks to build public support for another massive spending bill. Democrats are also hitting back at criticisms from congressional Republicans that the mammoth package goes too far beyond the road-and-bridge projects typically associated with infrastructure.

The White House released a set of state-by-state breakdowns on Monday detailing the number of bridges in severe disrepair, increased commuting times due to lack of investment in transit, and growing costs related to ensuring that drinking water systems are safe and clean, as well as funding in the proposal intended to tackle those problems.

Democrats in addition contend that child care and care for older adults and those with disabilities are critical for supporting the country’s economy and overall well-being, along with access to high-speed internet.

“What they really do is identify the needs in these states and how this package could benefit” states, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday, adding: “There are different types of funding for infrastructure that would be worked through with Congress as the discussions proceed.”

The new fact sheets don’t offer any estimates on how much money any state could expect to receive if the proposed infrastructure package makes it through the narrowly divided Congress to the president’s desk.

Speaking to regional reporters Monday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said it will be up to Congress to determine how exactly each of the many pots of money will be allocated.

Some dollars likely would be doled out through existing grant programs or using formulas based on a state’s population or other factors.

Congress also is expected to allocate money directly for specific projects, reviving a process known as earmarking that could be used to entice skeptical legislators to support a bill by sending money to their home districts and states.

Though specifics of how various dollars will be distributed are yet to be determined, Buttigieg said the overall approach will be intended to be “user-friendly” for state and local officials to figure out.

“The goal is to be responsive when questions come in, and to try to make the process as simple as can be, so you don’t have to be a large enough community to have full-time federal relations experts in order to navigate any application process,” Buttigieg said.

But in order to have any funding to apply for, the Biden administration will need to combat criticism from Republicans at the proposal’s price tag and its unusually broad definition of critical infrastructure.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Monday called the infrastructure package “a motley assortment of the left’s priciest priorities,” and a bait-and-switch from what voters expect from an infrastructure package.

“Less than 6% of this proposal goes to roads and bridges,” he said. “It’s not remotely targeted toward what Americans think they’re getting when politicians campaign on infrastructure.”

Responding to such critiques, Buttigieg pointed to massive national projects like the transcontinental railroad or the interstate highway system, arguing that those ambitious programs also changed how Americans thought about infrastructure.

“They challenged the country to expand its definition of infrastructure from what had prevailed in the past,” Buttigieg said, arguing that broadband internet is just as critical today as those projects were.

Asked how he’s pitching the proposal to Republican lawmakers and governors, Buttigieg replied that he hasn’t needed to argue why there’s a need for more investments, emphasizing that the size of the package will ensure that every state benefits.

The Biden administration’s state-centered fact sheets were published hours ahead of a bipartisan White House meeting between Biden and a handful of lawmakers, including Republican Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana and Democratic Rep. David Price of North Carolina.

Graves serves on the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, and Price is chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s panel on transportation spending.

According to the White House’s fact sheet on Iowa, the state has experienced 32 extreme weather events from 2010 to 2020, costing the state up to $50 billion in damages. The White House says Biden is calling for $50 billion to improve the resiliency of infrastructure and to support communities’ recovery from disaster.

Here are some of the other Iowa issues the White House is highlighting that the infrastructure bill may address:

  • ROADS AND BRIDGES: In Iowa there are 4,571 bridges and over 403 miles of highway in poor condition.
  • DRINKING WATER: Over the next 20 years, Iowa’s drinking water infrastructure will require $7.9 billion in additional funding.
  • HOUSING: In part due to a lack of available and affordable housing, 146,000 renters in Iowa are rent burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent.
  • BROADBAND: 13.4% of Iowans live in areas where, by one definition, there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds. And 61% of Iowans live in areas where there is only one such provider.
  • CHILD CARE: In Iowa, there is an estimated $499 million gap in what schools need to do maintenance and make improvements and 23% of residents live in a child care desert.

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Laura Olson
Laura Olson

Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Iowa Capital Dispatch. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.