Missoula Current: Tester: Trump’s growing budget deficit could put a pinch on infrastructure

by Martin Kidston

Sen. John Tester on Thursday named infrastructure as a priority as Congress sits down to craft the 2021 budget, though funding the growing list of projects could be challenging as the nation’s deficit soars.

The Trump administration this week unveiled its new $4.7 trillion budget, one that fiscal watchdogs have called unsustainable and political dreaming.

The president has already detailed what he wants funded and where he wants cuts, but both Sens. Tester and Steve Daines have said that’s the function of Congress and not the president.

Tester said budgetary hearings will begin next week in various subcommittees, and they could prove grueling.

“They’ll go through September and hopefully we’ll get all the budgets done this time around – we didn’t last time around,” Tester said Thursday. “Hopefully we’ll get them done in a timely manner so they’re done by September so people have the certainty they need to be able to know what programs are funded and what ones are not.”

On the infrastructure front, Tester said 5G and high-speed broadband are getting bipartisan support in Congress given that they serve both urban and rural needs, from agriculture to business.

Tester also is looking for a highway bill, funding for water projects and investment in VA hospitals. He learned on Thursday that the VA needs $60 billion for hospital improvements.

Air service also needs attention, he said.

“We have the 21st century technology to fly our planes in a timely manner, and making sure those airports do what they need to do is really important,” Tester said. “We need a good highway bill, and from a Homeland Security standpoint, we need to make sure the guard and Malmstrom have what they need. It’s time we started addressing this stuff.”

According to analysts, the Trump administration’s new budget would result in a $1.08 trillion deficit for the ongoing budget year and a $966 billion deficit gap come October.

Debates on where to cut and where to spend could be challenging this year. Proposed cuts to agency budgets other than defense, combined with deep cuts to Medicaid, will likely serve as nonstarters in Congress.

It could also make it difficult to find consensus around infrastructure projects and what should be funded.

“The problem is, where are you going to get the money?” Tester said. “We’re running trillion dollar deficits right now and that’s not sustainable in my opinion, and we’re going to have to deal with that. The problem is, we’re not even to a point where we can talk how we’re going to pay for this stuff.”