Flint water crisis flagged in Dem presidential infrastructure forum

Presidential candidate Tom Steyer talks with Wall Street Journal Executive Washington Editor Jerry Seib and Deputy Washington Bureau Chief Jeanne Cummings during the Moving America Forward Forum. | Courtesy photo

LAS VEGAS — America is falling apart. 

No, not metaphorically speaking — though several Democratic presidential candidates on the campaign trail would point to the actions of President Trump to argue differently. 

With thousands of bridges classified structurally deficient, roads in desperate need of repair, gaps in transportation systems and cities that aren’t equipped to deal with onslaught of changes brought on by the climate crisis, America’s infrastructure system is quite literally outdated, crumbling and in need of a fix. 

For once, America’s infrastructure took center stage at the Moving America Forward Forum Sunday afternoon. Former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and billionaire businessman Tom Steyer attended the event. 

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“It isn’t always sexy, but it is so important — the infrastructure that is above ground, the infrastructure that is underground and the digital infrastructure that is going to help decide whether the future works for America or not,” Buttigieg said. “One of the things Americans agree on is a major investment in our infrastructure system.” 

Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg | Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Despite being a topic that has attracted bipartisan support, there hasn’t been major federal investments in both mending what’s currently falling apart or investing in the structural future of America. 

Candidates took the opportunity to point out Trump’s role in this. Passing substantive infrastructure legislation was one of Trump’s campaign promises in 2016. 

“We didn’t get a good infrastructure package because the president, despite his promises, wouldn’t work to pay for it to get it done,” Klobuchar said. “Instead he did the Trump tax bill, which would have been a perfect opportunity to combine the tax bill with some tax reductions, like bringing the corporate rate down some. But he sucked all the money out of the system that he could have been used for infrastructure.”

The Trump tax bill lowered corporate tax rates from 35% to 21%. Klobuchar proposes raising it to 25%.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar | Andrew Roth

Buttigieg added Trump’s failure to pass anything was just another area where he had many people fooled. 

“We have an opportunity to do something different and take infrastructure week back from being a punchline,” he said.  

But while candidates agreed on the urgency of investing in America’s infrastructure, they offered different ideas on how to pay for it. 

Biden touted a $1.3 trillion infrastructure plan that includes raising the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent. 

“I think we can get some Republicans to support that as well,” he said. “(Increasing the corporate tax rate) raises $740 billion over 10 years.”

Klobuchar proposed a mixture of solutions including creating an infrastructure financing authority, which would aid states and local governments in leveraging private funds for infrastructure projects. 

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“I would take those Trump tax cuts where the corporate tax rate went down from the mid 30s to 21 percent,” she said. “Every point it went down was $100 billion. So you could still have reduced it and used a bunch of money for transportation. I would take the first four points of it and get $400 billion out of that.”

Moderators also pressed the candidates on increasing the gas tax. Money gained from the gas tax goes into the Highway Transportation Fund, which the federal government uses on mass transit and highways.

“The reality is we’re going to have to graduate from the gas tax because we are going to have to graduate from gas,” Buttigieg said. “We know it is not a viable, long term funding mechanism for our highways.”

Democratic presidential candidate, former vice President Joe Biden addresses a crowd at Wilson High School on October 26, 2019 in Florence, South Carolina. | Sean Rayford/Getty Images

“We’re not going to be able to raise the gas tax,” Biden added. “We might be able to index it down the line. I don’t think we are going to be able to raise the gas tax from what it is now to what it would be if we raise it for inflation.”

Steyer said he would support a wealth tax rather than a regressive tax that would fall on consumers. 

The conversation around repairing the current infrastructure overlapped with the discussion around the climate crisis and investing in “green” technologies. When asked which would be a bigger priority, all candidates argued it wouldn’t have to be one or the other.

But as the solutions are again being debated, candidates pointed to the human cost for not acting quickly.

The cost is felt by people who can’t access job opportunities because they lack convenient transportation systems or even have suffered injuries created by subpar infrastructure. It is also harsher on Black and brown communities.

Flint | Susan J. Demas

Every candidate referenced Flint as a prime example. The drinking water source for its predominantly Black community was changed in 2014 resulting in lead pipes poisoning the water and its residents. People are still drinking bottled water.   

“But Flint wasn’t a story about old pipe,” Steyer said. “Flint was a story about a state government and administration switching an all Black city from safe drinking water onto the Flint river.” 

A version of this story first ran in the Advance‘s sister outlet, the Nevada Current.