Construction industry stakeholders hoping for swift congressional action on a reauthorized highway bill shouldn’t hold their breath, according to Murphie Barrett, vice president of congressional relations for infrastructure advancement at the Associated General Contractors of America. With the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act set to expire September 30, activity around the bill is “grinding to a halt,” Barrett said during a panel session at AGC’s annual convention last week.
Barrett noted that out of four Senate committees that play a role in developing the highway bill, only the Committee on Environment and Public Works has approved legislative language. On the House side, the Transportation & Infrastructure and Ways & Means committees have held hearings but have not advanced a proposal. T&I Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., recently said he intends to roll out a bill by the end of the month ahead of an April markup, but Barrett says that will be challenging considering Congress’ ongoing failure to coalesce around how to pay for the measure.
The coronavirus outbreak has added a wrinkle to the equation that Barrett said is “sucking all the air out of the room.” Recent reports have posited the possibility of tacking a highway bill to a potential financial stimulus package, but Barrett noted there has been dissension among Congress about the merit of increasing the deficit. She also noted that many Republicans still question the success of the 2009 stimulus bill and whether it actually helped improve infrastructure. That skepticism has been mirrored by some economists but disputed by experts at the Brookings Institution.
Barrett noted the Trump administration has strayed from its past approach to forming a $1 trillion infrastructure proposal, which has generally only included $200 billion in federal funding, with the remainder coming from states, local governments and the private sector. However, this time around, the administration has proposed $1 trillion in direct federal spending, with $810 billion going toward a 10-year highway bill and $190 billion going to a plethora of other needs. Barrett said she had been informed that a legislative proposal from the Department of Transportation is going through interagency review at the Office of Management and Budget.
“We’re hopeful we will see that language soon,” Barrett said.
Barrett also expressed optimism about the Water Resources Development Act, calling it a legislative “bright spot” for infrastructure that could reach the president’s desk this year. She noted that Congress has a good track record of passing WRDA every two years. She expects the Senate’s version of WRDA will be ready this spring and the House’s version will be ready by late spring or early summer.
The state of labor
It’s no secret that contractors are still struggling to find qualified labor, but perhaps what’s more indicative of the health of the labor market is that 85% of contractors recently surveyed by AGC have a low opinion of the future pipeline of craft workers, said Jim Young, AGC’s senior director of congressional relations for labor, human resources and safety.
AGC is continuing its legislative agenda to reverse what it sees as higher education bias. While Young said federal spending on postsecondary education will never be evenly split between vocational education and traditional higher education, he said the construction industry has made inroads to combat bias against career and technical learning. The association is excited about the Trump administration’s proposed 53% funding increase for career and technical education, but the administration’s recently proposed apprenticeship rule “does nothing to bring more workers into construction,” Young said.
Young also expressed concern over the Trump administration’s lack of a “serious solution” to the ongoing multiemployer pension dilemma. AGC has called for a solution that supports increased partitioning, higher premiums, strict funding rules, new plan designs and higher guarantee levels. If Trump wants to get reelected, his administration will need to solve the problem soon, as key battleground states such as Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania have more pensioners in the multiemployer pension system than the projected margin of victory, Young said.
Another key area AGC continues to monitor is immigration reform, which CEO Stephen Sandherr called “the coronavirus of public policy” due to parallels in what he sees as “irrational thinking.” For years, AGC has called on the White House to take steps to ensure construction workers protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status can stay in the country, which would help the industry avoid an exacerbated labor shortage.
“Yes, I recognize that most [immigrants] came here illegally … but we can’t just deport them all,” Sandherr said. “We’ve got to provide them with some path to legalization.”
Jimmy Christianson, vice president of government relations at AGC, noted that the association is also tackling labor issues in the regulatory arena. On the issue of apprenticeships, AGC wrote in January that “high-quality unilateral programs should be eligible for government approval and funding on a fair and impartial basis.” AGC is also seeking regulatory changes that would clarify the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Respirable Crystalline Silica rule and expand the radius of operations for short-haul commercial truck drivers.
On the environmental side, Christianson touted the recent repeal and replacement of the Obama-era Waters of the US Rule and the revisions to the Joint Employer Standard in the Fair Labor Standards Act and National Labor Relations Act.
However, he noted that AGC would like to see even more regulations come off the books. AGC is tracking a number of potential rollbacks, most notably to the National Environmental Policy Act. The Trump administration's proposed rewrite, which Christianson says adopts AGC’s recommendations from 2016, would set page limits and time limits to develop environmental impact statements. It also clarifies that environmental effects “must be reasonably foreseeable and require a reasonably close causal relationship to the proposed action." Attorneys general from 18 states have opposed the proposed NEPA overhaul.
AGC’s environmental agenda also includes preventing regulation of stormwater discharge into groundwater under the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, redress of EPA’s 404 Permit Veto Authority, clarification of state clean water certification procedures under the Clean Water Act and review of National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Ozone and Particulate Matter.
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