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The failure of the Republican health care bill is having a ripple effect on Congress’ schedule, including potential consideration of an infrastructure financing package that could boost funding for the nation’s crumbling water and wastewater pipes, pumps and treatment plants, according to lawmakers.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly called for a trillion dollar infrastructure package to jump start the nation’s economy, including tripling funding for water infrastructure programs. However, several Republican and Democratic lawmakers speaking at the Water Policy Conference 2017 in Washington, D.C., spoke of the prospects of Congress taking up an infrastructure plan with skepticism.
The original plan was for Congress to consider infrastructure next year, according to Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. Graves indicated that is no longer the case in the wake of House leadership’s March 24 decision to pull the GOP’s American Health Care Act before a floor vote.
The schedule for infrastructure package is “in flux right now because of health care,” Graves said, adding “there is no clear direction.”
Graves said he would support the concept of “marrying the infrastructure package to the water resources legislation” that Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) has pledged to take up every two years.
The Senate has several pressing items on its agenda, including a vote on confirming Judge Neil Gorsuch to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, according to Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.). Boozman is chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Water.
Beyond the Gorsuch nomination, the Senate also will have to act on the debt ceiling and funding for the federal government, Boozman said. In addition, Boozman suggested that Congress should address tax reform before it can take on infrastructure.
Boozman described tax reform as “the most difficult piece of legislation” that Congress could consider.
Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) agreed that tax reform will be difficult, describing it as “a bear” compared to health care. However, Tonko, the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment, said infrastructure should be taken up first.
If a tax reform bill were to fail, that would be two legislative defeats in a row, which could stem the pressing need to replace and repair the nation’s aging infrastructure, according to Tonko.
Boozman said that while water infrastructure isn’t a partisan issue, the key to addressing the nation’s infrastructure challenges is to find a way to pay for it. Boozman said that while public-private partnerships are an effective way to build highways, those partnerships are not a solution for addressing water infrastructure problems in rural states like Arkansas, Boozman said.
Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), a member of the House Financial Services Committee, also was skeptical of public-private partnerships. He noted that toll roads constructed under public-private partnerships don’t make money.
“I am wary of the notion that private ownership of public infrastructure delivers the value that warrants loss of revenue and loss of control,” Kildee said.
Dan Hartnett, legislative affairs director at the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, told Bloomberg BNA that while the water sector heard a lot of support for an infrastructure package that includes funding for water and wastewater, there are “very few details about if and when the package will come together, and what funding levels it may include.”
Among the lawmakers, Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) was the only one who sounded remotely optimistic about infrastructure, noting “our president is a builder.”
Gibbs said President Trump’s budget request for fiscal year 2017, which included cuts across domestic programs, seeks additional funding for water infrastructure. The budget request seeks to boost resources for state revolving funds, which provide low-interest loans for water infrastructure projects, by $400 million and includes $20 million for the fledgling Water Infrastructure Financing Innovation Act, which Gibbs was instrumental in ushering through the House.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told the water utility officials to begin planning and prioritizing water infrastructure projects in advance of potential action by Congress. Once Congress moves to considering an infrastructure package, “it will move very fast,” said Whitehouse, the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety.
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