Montana Standard: Montana benefits from compromise infrastructure bill, Tester says

by Tom Lutey

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, one of 10 lawmakers negotiating a compromise $973 billion infrastructure bill, said the investment will have a significant impact on Montana.

The Montana Democrat said the package announced would complete funding for multiple rural water projects, constrained by spending limitations over the past 20 years. Internet, airports, road and bridge projects would all benefit.

“It will provide significant investments in Montana’s roads, bridges, airports, and water infrastructure. It will also make badly needed investments in broadband, which is particularly important for folks in rural Montana, who lag far behind the rest of the country when it comes to internet connectivity,” Tester said. “Most importantly, it will help create good paying jobs across the entire state.”

President Joe Biden announced the agreement at the White House flanked by the lawmakers credited for the negotiating the compromise over the past several weeks. The proposal is $1 trillion less than what the president preferred, but is more likely to secure the 10 Republican votes needed to pass.

“Oftentimes, you read, you hear and you guys write about the fact that sides are divided, and we’re far apart and can’t get anything done. All that’s true, by the way. This is an exception to that rule,” Tester said. “It’s not a small piece of legislation. It’s pretty big.”

The top-line number was very much in line with the Senate Republican counteroffer of $928 billion, which was proposed May 27. That number was up from GOP lawmakers’ first proposal, tendered in April, of $568 billion for infrastructure.

Republican negotiators agreed to pull another $400 billion from the federal wallet. Democrats abandoned plans to increases taxes on the wealthy in order to pay for a $2 trillion investment.

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins emerged from negotiations telling White House press members that the compromise infrastructure bill was paid for without raising taxes. Tester later explained that lawmakers had agreed to rustle up “pay-fors” from previous pandemic programs with funds unspent.

“We had to come up with pay-fors that everybody agreed on,” Tester said. “If one person said ‘I’m out,’ then we moved to a different pay-for.”

Negotiators were close to a compromise 10 days ago, but needed everyone to agree on how the infrastructure would be funded. Lawmakers settled on using some unused unemployment insurance money from the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act signed by Donald Trump in March 2020.

The IRS gross tax gap will be another funding source. The gap is the difference between what taxpayers owe in federal taxes and what’s actually paid, basically the amount of annual noncompliance.

The amount of under-collected federal taxes is substantial, last estimated at $441 billion in 2013. In April, IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig, told the Senate Finance Committee the gap could be $1 trillion. Congress has for years pointed to the tax gap as a way to fund national priorities without increasing taxes.

Reaching a compromise in June means that lawmakers could put an infrastructure bill on track for passage by September 30, which is the end of the federal fiscal year and the routinely ignored deadline for passing a federal budget.

There are few working weeks left in the congressional year. Lawmakers leave for a 14-day Independence Day break beginning June 28. The Senate works three weeks in July, then leaves for an August recess that stretches to Sept. 13.

The compromise announced Thursday was a top-line spending amount with the details of projects still to be hammered out, but Tester was confident in some Montana priorities being covered.

“Something that I fought for is water infrastructure,” Tester said. “You know, we’ve got regional water projects in our state that are really important. And we get this thing across the finish line, get the president’s signature on it, this is going to put those to bed.”

Nearly 20 years ago, Congress committed to spending hundreds of billions of dollars on rural water projects in order to bring safe drinking water to the rural parts of the United States.

In Montana, those projects collectively tip the scales at more than $1 billion. They are large in scale. The Fort Peck/Dry Prairie Rural Water System, for example, involves 3,200 miles of pipe to deliver treated Missouri River water from Nashua all the way to Plentywood 131 miles to the northeast.

What Congress didn’t do was fully fund the projects up front. The money has been appropriated per project in amounts of $10 million a year on average.

There’s also an agreement to eliminate lead pipes from 400,000 American public schools, including tribal schools.

Most Montana schools are not required to test for lead in their water, but amounts below EPA thresholds are known to exist. In Billings, for example, tests in 2018 revealed lead in the water at 25 schools, but at levels considered acceptable.

There’s no assurance 10 Republicans will vote for the compromise infrastructure bill. Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines’ spokeswoman, Katherine McKeogh, issued a statement expressing displeasure in the agreement.

“President Biden made clear today that he won’t sign this bipartisan infrastructure compromise unless he has a social welfare package to sign with it, which undermines the purpose of a bipartisan proposal. With a 50-50 split Senate and each Senator having the power to stop any legislation from moving forward, Senator Daines hopes that Senator Tester would not allow President Biden to hold any true infrastructure compromise hostage and refuse to support a multi-trillion dollar social welfare package with massive tax increases.”

In a talking points memo, the White House described the compromise as the “single largest dedicated bridge investment since the construction of the interstate highway system,” as well as the largest federal investment in public transportation in history.

The White House put the top-line amount agreed to at $1.2 trillion. Democrat negotiators said they would seek the rest of the funds for the president’s goals through budget reconciliation, a process that avoids filibuster.

The compromise sets the table for a conversion of school and transit buses to electric and the installation of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations across the country.

Upgrades to the U.S. electricity transmission system are also prioritized.