As leaders of both parties met in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday to jumpstart a major infrastructure plan local leaders called on them to include improvements to broadband internet access.
President Trump and top Democrats, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, agreed in broad terms to work toward a $2 trillion investment in roads, bridges, and other infrastructure. Many of the details, including how the massive plan will be funded, must still be worked out.
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Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., praised the first steps and urged her fellow lawmakers to focus on internet access.
“There’s a severe lack of access to broadband internet, particularly in rural areas of New Hampshire, that is holding back local economies, and I’m glad the issue was included in today’s discussion,” she said in a statement. “It’s now time to put aside petty politics and invest in projects that are critical to public safety and the future of our economy. I will continue to work across the aisle to deliver bipartisan infrastructure legislation to the President’s desk.”
Rep. Annie Kuster added her own support to the effort.
“The safety of our nation’s roads, bridges, waterways, and water treatment infrastructure should not be a partisan issue,” she said. “Investing in our nation’s infrastructure including expanding rural broadband is about ensuring public safety and our economic competitiveness.”
A survey of New Hampshire businesses conducted in 2017 and 2018 by the Broadband Center of Excellence at UNH found that only 55 percent of responding businesses believed their internet speeds were sufficient.
The rate was even lower among small businesses and in industries where employees tend to work from home or remotely.
Last year, Gov. Chris Sununu signed into law a bill allowing communities in under-connected areas to issue bonds to fund broadband improvements.
“We’d welcome any efforts that expand private sector telecommunications infrastructure throughout the state to improve access, quality and reliability,” said Kevin Flynn, a spokesman for the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire. “Businesses in rural areas need that kind of access to thrive and expand. We’re equally concerned about transportation infrastructure. We need safe, well-maintained roads and bridges to move goods and accommodate commuting workers. Federal transportation aid to the state is a critical component.”
The plan discussed by Trump and Democrats on Tuesday focused on $1.5 trillion in new spending on infrastructure over the coming decade but relied heavily on states, localities and the private sector to cover the costs.
A plan released earlier by Senate Democrats would have relied far more heavily on direct federal government spending than Trump’s plan. The president’s plan included $200 billion in federal spending with the aim of enticing several times that amount from other levels of government.
Both Schumer and Pelosi characterized the meeting with Trump as productive, and Pelosi said she is hopeful Democrats can work with the White House despite friction over ongoing congressional investigations of the administration.
“We cannot ignore the needs of the American people as we go forward,” she said.
Yet the issue of paying for a plan looms incredibly large.
Schumer told reporters that Trump did not rule out tax increases — an idea many Republicans are loath to embrace, especially with an election around the corner — but offered no specifics.
“The ball is in their court,” Schumer said. “We told him that, it was repeated over and over again, that unless he is willing to come up with the pay-fors for this large package, it will never get done, and he agreed. And so we agreed to meet in three weeks, the same group, and they would present what their pay-fors would be, and I thought that was encouraging.”
Before the meeting, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters that Trump had not endorsed the idea of paying for infrastructure with an increase in the federal gas tax, a move backed by some Democrats and business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“There are many different ways to pay for it,” she said. “You could have private-public partnerships. I know the Democrats will want to raise taxes. They want to raise taxes for everything.”
Democrats have suggested paying for infrastructure by rolling back the Republican tax cuts that Trump signed into law in 2017.
Before the meeting, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney cast doubt on whether a deal could be cut with Democrats.
“I hope that negotiations go well today, but if they don’t, it would not surprise me,” Mulvaney said, adding that he thinks there’s a greater likelihood of a revamped trade deal with Canada and Mexico passing Congress than an infrastructure plan.