Last winter, California’s Democratic leaders were feeling cautiously optimistic that they could work with President Donald Trump to spur desperately needed infrastructure investment in the state. One year into the Trump administration, the prospects for bipartisan partnership on the issue have dimmed.
The president touted plans to invest in the nation’s infrastructure in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. “We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways across our land,” Trump promised.
Republican lawmakers stood to applaud as the president asked both parties to come together “to give us the safe, fast, reliable, and modern infrastructure our economy needs.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, however, remained seated with her hands folded, her face grim.
A number of California’s fellow Democrats had a similar reaction to Trump’s infrastructure pitch. Sen. Dianne Feinstein noted in a statement afterward that while the president promised more investment, his “budget would slash funding for vital transit and infrastructure programs that communities across the country rely on.”
Over the past several months, Pelosi, Feinstein and others in their party have grown deeply pessimistic about the White House’s plan for infrastructure. And nothing in Trump’s remarks Tuesday night suggest the White House is prepared to deliver the kind of funding the state government is seeking for its infrastructure priorities.
“Infrastructure is critical for our nation’s prosperity and economic and social justice into the future. So I want to be optimistic,” Congressman John Garamendi of Walnut Grove told The Bee. But Garamendi, a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said that after working with the administration and listening to Trump officials talk about the issue over the last several months, he’s still waiting to hear a promising plan.
While the White House had raised expectations that Trump would flesh out his infrastructure proposal in the State of the Union, the president offered little in the way of new details. Instead, he emphasized principles the administration has already outlined, including partnering with state and local governments and streamlining the permitting and approval process.
But the plan the White House has floated is just a fraction of what most Democrats had hoped for when Trump talked on the campaign trail of unleashing $1 trillion in infrastructure investment. According to the latest reports, the administration is now looking at a $200 billion spending package over 10 years, drawn from cuts to other parts of the federal budget. The president suggested Tuesday that would lead to $1.5 trillion in investment, when local funding and private investment is factored in.
By way of comparison, California Gov. Jerry Brown submitted a list of California’s priority infrastructure projects to the White House last year that, on their own, would require $100 billion in funding.
And a leaked draft of the plan put the onus on states to come up with most of the funding for infrastructure projects, with the federal government footing the bill for just 20 percent or less of any one project. Traditionally, the federal government shoulders 50 percent or more of financing for most capital investment grants.
Pelosi’s office has already dismissed the administration’s approach, with a spokesman calling it “a token GOP infrastructure plan” and telling Bloomberg News earlier this week that Democrats “will continue to fight for broad, bold federal investment.”
Garamendi, meanwhile, worried that, “What you have here is just a rearrangement of existing programs, probably to the detriment of California.”
Specifically, the White House draft proposal looks to eliminate the existing formulas the federal government uses to distribute infrastructure funds, and replace them, in part, with block grants aimed at sending more funding to rural states. It would also cap how much any one state could receive in funding, regardless of size.
The downbeat assessment from California Democrats is a shift from just a year ago. Despite their deep disagreement on a host of other policies, Gov. Jerry Brown singled out infrastructure in his 2017 State of the State address as one area where the state and Republicans in Washington could work together. A month later, Brown visited Washington, D.C. and sounded hopeful his government could “find common ground” with the White House on the issue.
Rebuilding California’s crumbling roads, rails and waterways has been a major focus of Brown’s past seven years in Sacramento. In addition to addressing infrastructure crises like the erosion of the Oroville Dam spillway, Brown has pursued ambitious – and expensive – long-term projects like the high-speed rail line through the Central Valley and the tunnels project to transport water from the Sacramento River to the Central Valley and Southern California.
The state has secured federal funding to help pay for some of those projects, but much of the money has come from the state’s taxpayers. In April, the governor signed a new law, Senate Bill 1, raising the state’s gas and diesel taxes to pay for road and bridge repairs and invest in new transit projects.
The gas tax increase has drawn withering criticism from the state’s Republicans, including those in Congress. Leading California Republicans like House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and Jeff Denham of Turlock are also vocal critics of the high-speed rail project, which McCarthy regularly refers to as a “boondoggle.” Republicans are pushing a ballot measure to repeal the tax.
McCarthy, however, cheered Trump’s infrastructure remarks in a statement after the speech Tuesday night. And he pointed out that, as with several other priorities the president outlined, “these are not partisan goals – they are goals shared by a large majority of Americans in both parties.”
Even a $200 billion spending package may be too much for some fiscal conservatives in Congress, however. GOP leaders are wary of pursuing legislation that could prove controversial among their own members. House Speaker Paul Ryan notably left out infrastructure in an email he sent to supporters Tuesday afternoon, highlighting “four topics you should listen for from President Trump” in his speech.
If the White House could attract Democratic support in Congress for infrastructure legislation, it could afford to lose conservatives. But Democrats’ sour reaction to the administration’s proposal doesn’t bode well for those hoping to get federal money flowing to California’s many infrastructure projects.