With D.C. in park, how Pa., states are driving the infrastructure debate on their own | Monday Morning Coffee

July 29, 2019 7:24 am

Good Monday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

If you’ve been paying attention to the headlines out of Washington these last two years, then you know that ‘Infrastructure Week,’ has become something of a running joke.

Every time the Trump White House announces it wants to do something about America’s crumbling network of roads and bridges, some ridiculous scandal or ham-handed unforced error comes along to mess it up.

During its first bite at the apple in 2017, for instance, President Donald Trumpblew up ‘Infrastructure Week,’ by closing a Rose Garden press conference by accusing former FBI boss James Comey of committing perjury.

The national press was then promptly off to the races, as the New York Timesreported at the time, and infrastructure repair was promptly forgotten.

The second time around, a seeming deal on infrastructure blew up as Trump chose to rant about the Russia probe instead.

Now that it’s become clear that (a budget agreement notwithstanding) the White House and Congressional Democrats can scarcely agree on the day of the week, let alone a multi-billion dollar infrastructure bill, the states, led by their governors, are leaving Washington behind to move on their own.

National Governors Association Chairman Larry Hogan, R-Md.

During a meeting in Salt Lake City last week, incoming National Governors Association chairman Larry Hogan, who’s the GOP governor of Maryland, announced that he’s launching a “yearlong initiative to push for the repair, enhancement and modernization our nation’s infrastructure through innovative fixes to bottlenecks, creative partnerships with private investors, streamlined project review, smarter technologies and improved cyber-defenses,” according to an NGA statement.

Hogan’s “Infrastructure: Foundation for Success,” builds on what the NGA describes as “increasingly active state efforts” to tackle a variety of unmet infrastructure needs, the NGA statement reads.

It adds, in the most tactful way possible, that the task has been “made more urgent by the lack of comprehensive federal action to address the nation’s aging infrastructure.”

All that’s missing there is a Nikki Haley-style ‘Bless your heart,’ to convey the gargantuan frustration on the part of state governments when it comes to Washington’s complete paralysis on the issue.

“Modern and well-functioning infrastructure is vital to a prosperous economy, public safety and quality of life for all Americans,” Hogan said in statement. “Through my NGA Chair’s Initiative, Infrastructure: Foundation for Success, America’s governors will build on their record of leadership to explore solutions that ensure that America’s infrastructure is responsive, efficient and safeguarded against cyber threats. Governors are dedicated to finding better ways to move people and goods and provide energy, water and communications services.”

Democratic legislators gather around Gov. Tom Wolf at a Capitol press conference. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Hogan’s action will shine a surely welcome national spotlight on one of our biggest public policy debates. But it’s not exactly a new one for Pennsylvania, where argument over infrastructure funding has been raging for years.

For instance …

In February, Gov. Tom Wolf rolled out his $4.5 billion, bond-funded Restore PA program, which will address infrastructure needs ranging from broadband and flood-control to blight mediation and more standard road and bridge repairs.

Republicans, along with some progressive Democrats, were lukewarm (for admittedly very different reasons) to the severance tax on gas drilling that was going to be used to pay down the bonds. Wolf has been crisscrossing the state for months to build public support for the plan in a road trip nearly as long as the Eagles’ farewell tour.

It’s possible we could see debate on the plan this fall. But don’t hold your breath.

Who? Top. Men.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the state House announced they’ve formed a new task force to study infrastructure issues.

And, in much the same way we’d like a pet unicorn, GOP leaders hope to unravel a massively complicated and hugely expensive public policy issue “without putting any additional burdens on taxpayers.” And if you’ve been driving Second Street lately on your way out of town, you know this is a metaphysical impossibility.

“As employers and companies thriving in our economy look to expand, Pennsylvania is still missing out,” House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said in a statement. “Our infrastructure must exceed the needs of employers if we hope to attract the next generation of business leaders to Pennsylvania.”

The 10-member panel, chaired by Rep. Martina White, R-Philadelphia, will take its membership from the ranks of lawmakers across the state. White told the Capital-Star that “time for kicking the can down the road is over,” and that she hopes to have a report in hand by the time the Legislature returns to town in September.

And the need is real.

As the Capital-Star’s Stephen Caruso reported last week, lawmakers in 2013 passed the nation’s largest gas tax to pay for some $2.2 billion infrastructure repairs. Since then, the state has replaced more than 550 structurally deficient bridges and advanced 2,600 transportation projects, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

But that was only enough to improve the commonwealth’s roads to a D+, according to the society’s 2018 report. Overall, Pennsylvania’s highways, dams, sewers, and tunnels earned a C- grade.

And as Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes explained not too long ago, because of a bunch of factors (Cough, Turnpike Debt, Cough) the state could be headed toward another infrastructure meltdown in the not-too-distant future if the issue isn’t addressed.

So here’s hoping something comes of this state-level push, either from Hogan, or from Wolf and the House GOP.

We’ve all seen “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” We know how this one typically ends.

Join us, won’t you?

Our Stuff.
We had an embarrassment of riches on our Commentary Page over the weekend. And we’re only too proud to share it with you this Monday morning.

First up, a bunch of Pennsylvania nurses, who are the first line of healthcare defense these days, argued in favor for repealing the Hyde Amendment, which bars public funding for abortions — except in cases of rape, incest of when the mother’s life is endangered.

Washington & Lee University expert takes a look at for-profit policing (aka Civil Asset Forfeiture), and explains why it’s such a horrendous idea and doesn’t advance the cause of justice.

Editorial Cartoonist Tim Hartman has a few thoughts about how much the General Assembly spends on its taxpayer-funded PR operation.

And some smart-alecky newsletter author you might have heard of has a few choice words about the Trump administration’s war on food stamps recipients.

Opinion Contributor Dick Polman gets your Monday morning rolling with a post-game on Robert Mueller’s House testimony.

And last, but certainly not least, a University of Washington scholar looks at his home state’s experiment in free- and reduced-price higher education. With that movement revving up in the Keystone State, there could be some lessons there for Pennsylvania advocates.

Image via Flickr Commons

If you live in the Philly area, and you think you’re paying too much in property taxes, then you have until Aug. 1 to try to fix it, the Inquirer reports.
U.S. Rep. Scott Perry’s, R-10th District constituents asked for a larger venueafter a town hall meeting scheduled for Tuesday ‘sold out’ in minutes, PennLive reports.
Doing some development in Pittsburgh’s hip Lawrenceville neighborhood? You’re going to have to include affordable housingPittsburgh City Paperreports.
The high cost of a death penalty case in Northampton County has prompted a debate over capital punishment, the Morning Call reports.
Four firefighters were injured fighting a blaze in Penn Hills, the Tribune-Review reports.

Here’s your #Harrisburg Instagram of the Day:

These Philadelphia activists want a voice in contract talks for city police in 2020, WHYY-FM reports.
Officials from Penn State will host a discussion on hemp at a farm in Lancaster County next week, WITF-FM reports.
A white Jewish photographer who chronicled Philadelphia’s black society has diedBillyPenn reports. 
Pittsburgh’s male deer are MIA. The Incline explains why that’s an issue.
PoliticsPA has last week’s winners and losers in state politics.
New Democratic majorities in state Capitols across the country are pushing through a crush of reports.
Politico looks at some internal conflicts over diversity in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Former Indiana senator Dan Coats is on his way out the door as Director of National Intelligence. A Trump loyalist will replace him, Roll Call reports.

Gov. Tom Wolf 
has no public schedule today.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to Hank Butler, lobbyist for the Pa. Jewish Federation (and our old high school classmate and hockey linemate), and PennLive Opinion Editor Joyce Davis, both of whom celebrate today. Congrats and enjoy the day, folks.

Heavy Rotation.
Here’s an old favorite from Jack’s MannequinIt’s ‘Dark Blue.

Monday’s Gratuitous Baseball Link.
Baltimore dropped one, 5-4, to Anaheim on the coast on Sunday afternoon.

And now you’re up to date.


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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.