If you want to judge the Trump infrastructure proposal by comparing it to what he campaigned on, you’d have to say one of two things:
I tend toward the former. Infrastructure is undoubtedly a role for government, although there’s plenty of room to debate how much of it should come from Washington as opposed to the states. And there’s no question the work needs to be done, although I’ve always been skeptical of the idea that we should do infrastructure projects to “create jobs” or whatever. You should only spend money on something because the something needs to be done, not because you’re hoping the thing will stimulate other things. That’s artificial and almost never gets the results it’s designed to get.
So does that mean $20 billion a year over 10 years strikes the right balance? Really fix the roads and bridges but let go of the hubris that thinks you’re going to revive the whole economy in the process? That’s probably the best way to look at it:
President Donald Trump will propose $200 billion in infrastructure spending over 10 years in his first budget on Tuesday - funding the administration believes will boost private, state and local spending on projects, a White House official said on Friday.
The infrastructure plan, first reported by Bloomberg News, is likely to include funding to encourage state and local governments to lease assets to the private sector to generate funding for other projects.
Trump has long pledged a $1 trillion, 10-year plan to modernize U.S. roads, bridges, airports, the electrical grid and water systems, but has so far been vague on how much of the spending would come from the federal government.
If the idea here is to spend the $200 billion in the form of federal matching funds, with state and local spending adding to the total, then you could be getting to a higher overall figure - although it’s hard to see how it totals anything near $1 trillion over 10 years.
A total of $20 billion a year for the federal government’s share of infrastructure spending doesn’t seem out of line in a federal budget that tends to be close to $4 trillion a year. I would certainly put infrastructure higher on the priority list than a lot of other things Washington spends money on. I would be concerned, though, if Washington is getting too much in the business of paying for state and local roads and bridges, thus making it easy for state and local governments not to come up with their own money for the work, and likely making them more dependent on Washington for this funding over the long term.
Here in Michigan we’ve had quite a budgeting battle over the badly needed fixing of our roads, with the Legislature very reluctant to ever allocate general fund money for the work. They always make the excuse that roads are paid for with gas tax revenues, and since no one wants to raise the gas tax, their hands are tied - as if they don’t have the authority to allocate general fund money to roads if they want to.
If this is the way it is in states all across the country, and I suspect it is, a short-term infusion of federal cash for roads could quickly turn into a crack addiction. The next thing you know the states expect the feds to pony up for every inch of road everywhere, regardless of whether it’s a federally owned interstate, a state trunkline or a local road.
These are details worth watching as we see how the budget advances. Infrastructure absolutely needs work all across the country. There’s no denying that. I just hope an obvious need doesn’t turn into an excuse for yet another permanent budget blowout.
Dan Calabrese’s column is distributed by CainTV, which can be found at caintv.com
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