Trump leak gives legislature shade
Published 7:48 pm Saturday, January 27, 2018
By TODD STACY
There are unintentional leaks and then there are intentional leaks. As frustrated as Trump Administration officials may get with the unintentional or unauthorized distribution of sensitive information to the media, they have also been known to use the tactic to their advantage.
When information is leaked to the media on purpose, it usually means someone wants to send a subtle message that advances their goals. This past week, the White House appears to have intentionally leaked a document revealing its plans for a major infrastructure initiative – and the message being sent has big implications for Alabama.
As first reported by Axios’ Jonathan Swan, the Trump Administration’s draft “Infrastructure Incentives Initiative” memo offers the first glimpse into a highly-anticipated effort to fund road and bridge improvements across the country. For Alabama, the draft plan raises major questions as to how the state will compete for grants without a revenue mechanism to match federal funds.
According to the memo, half of the expected $200 billion federal road appropriation would be distributed through a competitive grant program to states, local governments and other “eligible entities.” Various factors would be weighed on applications, including to a minor degree incorporation of new technologies (five percent), pass-thru efficiencies (10 percent) and the contribution to economic development (five percent).
However, a full 70 percent of the grant is weighted toward the applicant’s ability to raise their own revenue streams for construction and maintenance. Simply put, the White House wants states and local governments to pony up their own resources to help share the burden for improving the nation’s aging infrastructure.
Why might that be a problem for Alabama? Because last year the legislature failed to pass a infrastructure revenue and investment plan that would have given the state a leg up in applying for these Trump road grants.
The bill, sponsored by State Rep. Bill Poole (R-Tuscaloosa), would have incrementally raised Alabama’s gas and diesel tax by nine cents a gallon to support a $2.45 billion bond issue to build and repair roads and bridges across the state. While the bill saw widespread support from legislative leadership, the governor, and trade associations during the 2017 regular session, it failed to receive enough votes to clear a procedural hurdle in the House.
After lawmakers expressed dissatisfaction over various details of the plan, House Speaker Mac McCutcheon declared the infrastructure bill “dead” and said it would not come up again in this legislative term. The legislature’s reluctance to increase taxes – even a gradual nine cent increase more akin to a user fee – is not likely to abate in an election year. However, Alabama could now find itself at a disadvantage to other states who are leveraging new revenues of their own to match federal funds.
Even without federal money to sweeten the pot, it is widely agreed that the legislature needs to do something about our crumbling infrastructure. Alabama’s roads and bridges received a D+ rating on the most recent report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Our infrastructure deficiencies affect everything from public safety to economic development, and existing revenues aren’t keeping pace with the growing needs.
Speaker McCutcheon told me a legislative working group is running the traps in the hopes of having a viable bill ready to pass by next year. Should Congress pass something soon, the time needed to implement such a new law would give Alabama the opportunity to enact an updated proposal in the 2019 session, the Speaker said.
Even if timing is not an issue, one risk to waiting until next year could be the influx of newly-elected state legislators. A relatively high number of House and Senate members are retiring or seeking different office, meaning many new faces are expected in the State House beginning in 2019. None of them will have been a part of this legislative working group, and some could balk at the prospect of casting one of their first votes to raise a tax.
That brings me back to why I believe this “Infrastructure Investment Incentives” document was intentionally leaked. The White House is subtly telegraphing to states and local governments that if you want federal road money, you have to put some skin in the game. Of course, state leaders have always known that demonstrating the ability to put up matching funds would likely be necessary to access new federal infrastructure appropriations. With the leaked White House memo, they now know just how much the Trump Administration is counting on states to invest monies of their own.
That means whether they get to it this year or next, Republican legislators in Alabama will have the mother of all covers to explain voting to increase the gas tax: President Trump told me to.
Todd Stacy is the publisher of the Alabama Daily News. His 15-year career in Alabama politics spanned from the State House in Montgomery to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. and now informs his political news analysis at www.ALDailyNews.com.