Crumbling concrete. Rusting girders. Flaking paint. We traveled Amtrak's Northeast corridor last October to visit family in the New York City suburbs. I gazed out the windows as the train vibrated violently on aging tracks, passed beneath decrepit bridges, and lingered at shabby stations, and I was reminded of broken promises.
President Donald Trump ran on a pledge to massively rebuild America's infrastructure, thereby providing tens of thousands of new construction jobs and making America great again. Last February and in typical Trumpian fashion he promised, “the biggest and boldest infrastructure investment in American history.” Nothing happened. In this February’s State of the Union address, he adjusted his message and offered to work with the new Democratic majority in Congress “for a great rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure.” But that’s about as far as it went. No details were given, contrary to the 1,058 words he devoted to building “the wall.”
Last year’s promise to invest $1.5 trillion in infrastructure over the next decade proved to be nothing more than a "bait and switch." According to a report from the Wharton School, Trump’s alma mater, the sum involved only $200 billion in real federal dollars. The remainder would have to be leveraged from local and state governments and the private sector. Huh? Why is that necessary? Well, it's all a matter of priorities.
First we needed a tax cut. How’s that worked out? Last October, the Treasury Department announced that the deficit had hit $779 billion in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. That represented a 17 percent increase over 2017 and the highest deficit in six years. Revenues are simply not keeping pace with government spending, and those missing monies could have been allocated to an infrastructure rebuild.
We’ve been conned again. Remember what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised about the tax cut bill in December 2017? “I not only don’t think it will increase the deficit, I think it will be beyond revenue neutral. In other words, I think it will produce more than enough to fill that gap.” Hmm. Not even close. It looks like the old, bogus “trickle down” theory has bumped into reality yet again. Democrats and some of the nation’s best economists warned all along that an unnecessary tax cut would cause the deficit to soar. They also predicted that any eventual remedies would end up on the backs of average Americans.
McConnell rekindled this fear in October after Treasury noted the ballooning deficit. He responded by claiming that the social safety nets — Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid — were “the real driver of the debt.” Are you following what shell the pea is under?
If not, try doing your 2018 income tax returns. If you’ve already completed them, you may have discovered a cruel impact of the tax cut for some of us in the middle class. The IRS reports that the amount of the average tax refund is down 8.7 percent this year compared to 2017 and the number of people getting a refund has dropped by almost 25 percent. It is early yet, but the trend is not good. If you wish to join the angry army of complainers, check out hashtag #GOPTaxScam.
I suppose you could say that the cost of Trump’s southern border wall counts as infrastructure spending of a sort. Congress has just agreed to give the “Art of the Deal” maven $1.375 billion for physical barriers, down $23.625 billion from what Democrats had offered for an actual wall last March. The string they attached was a path to citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants brought here at an early age. Trump said no. I guess there wasn’t a “national emergency” back then.
As long as the GOP controlled both houses of Congress, there was no pressure on Trump to live up to his infrastructure promises. Now the calculus has changed, and House Democrats are demanding a fix for our decaying infrastructure. Since Congress is unlikely to roll back the tax cut with a Republican-controlled Senate, the only solution is to raise the federal gasoline tax to build up the Highway Trust Fund.
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I know this means another tax on the middle class, but no one wants to be on a bridge when it collapses or a train when it derails. Washington last raised the federal gas tax in 1993, and we are still paying the same 18.4 cents a gallon for unleaded after 26 years — despite inflation and escalating construction costs. Can you hold your nose and climb onboard?