This story is about infrastructure and Nebraska’s U.S. Senate race. Fight the urge to yawn. The odds are good that federal taxpayers helped deliver this news to you, whether by road, bridge or broadband.
Federal investment helped pave similar paths for commuters, for farmers, for people using cellphones, for folks flying into Eppley Airfield in Omaha and Western Nebraska Regional Airport in Scottsbluff.
We questioned Nebraska’s three Senate candidates about the proper role of the federal government in infrastructure funding and oversight, what investments might be needed and how they would pay for them.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., Lincoln City Councilwoman Jane Raybould, a Democrat, and retiree Jim Schultz, a Libertarian, all agreed on the need to build and maintain highways, roads, bridges, railroads, broadband and more.
But the candidates disagreed on appropriate levels of federal funding and on how or whether Congress should boost or replace those funds — with income taxes, corporate taxes, fees or state and local spending.
None called for an increase in the federal gas tax. Transportation experts have said the rise of increasingly fuel-efficient and electric vehicles leaves the gas tax on squishy footing for growth.
And none backed a return to earmarks, the legislative process of senators using their influence to direct funds to pet projects, a traditional way that less-populated states secured federal funds.
On this issue, the challengers are playing on Fischer’s turf. She was known in the Nebraska Legislature for twisting arms to secure funds for roads and bridges, passing a law that dedicated a quarter-cent of state sales tax to it.
By her third year in Washington, D.C., she served on the conference committee that steered a five-year surface transportation funding bill that will, federal estimates show, send $1.5 billion to Nebraska.
Here’s where Fischer, Raybould and Schultz diverged on four major infrastructure project types: roads, broadband, airports and water.
Fischer and Raybould identified specific ways to supplement funds raised by the fuel tax and to fund the federal portion of costs for roads, bridges and highways. Schultz took a different tack.
Fischer pointed to her bill to use $21.4 billion from the $46 billion in fees Customs and Border Patrol collects over five years from freight and passengers entering the country. The border agency only uses about $2 billion. The rest reverts to the general fund.
“I don’t think increasing the gas tax is sustainable,” Fischer said.
Raybould said she would seek to roll back some of the tax breaks oil and drug companies received in the Republican tax cut bill. Revoking breaks for 17 oil and gas companies alone could generate $25 billion, she said.
The tax law’s corporate and individual income tax breaks for companies and people not paying their fair share should be repealed, she said, and that would stabilize federal funding.
“Nebraskans certainly can’t afford any further increases in state or local property taxes,” Raybould said.
Schultz, as he did on most federal infrastructure projects, suggested that Congress should work to reduce or eliminate federal taxes geared toward transportation. He said state and local governments could work with private individuals to fund infrastructure investments more efficiently.
Modern agriculture and business rely on the Internet. But rural broadband access is often only available through satellite or wireless phone companies because of the cost of deploying wired fiber optic networks to small clusters of customers.
The three candidates emphasized the need to improve access to affordable broadband, but each disagreed on how best to achieve that goal.
Fischer cited congressional efforts to aid companies willing to serve rural areas, and to help smaller companies buy wireless spectrum from larger wireless companies to sell Internet access. She cited her recent efforts during farm bill negotiations to make sure that broadband development qualified for matching grants under rural development guidelines.
She continues to push for money from Universal Service Funds, financed by fees collected from cellphone users, to be spent at the state level to boost broadband deployment in rural and other underserved areas.
Raybould called for more direct federal investment. She said expansion of rural broadband should be treated the way the country once boosted rural electrification — as a public utility.
She says federal investments, whether from existing cellphone fees, existing discretionary dollars, grants or tax bill rollbacks, should be directed at the areas receiving the least service now to stretch dollars further.
Schultz favors a reduced federal role in broadband deployment, saying federal regulations and investments tend to force Internet providers to use dated technology because they can’t keep up.
Nebraska is a tale of at least three tiers when it comes to air service. There’s Eppley Airfield in Omaha, which draws enough passengers from Omaha, eastern Nebraska and western Iowa to thrive.
Then there’s a rung of smaller but frequented regional airports in places like Lincoln and Grand Island that seem capable of supporting commercial air service with limited federal support.
Finally, there’s the smaller airports that serve places that might lack air service if not for the federal investment of Essential Air Service, places that include Scottsbluff, North Platte and Alliance.
Essential Air Service funding is often targeted by deficit hawks in Congress. It has survived in recent years because of pushback from representatives and senators from rural states, including Fischer.
Fischer and Raybould say they would work hard to protect funding for Essential Air Service. Each says it’s vital to growing the state.
Schultz says he doesn’t see a federal role for propping up commercial service at smaller airports that might not otherwise offer it.
Fischer says Congress might soon consider whether to allow the authority to charge slightly larger bag fees to cover some costs for needed upgrades.
Raybould says Congress could do more to encourage investments in new technologies to automate and accelerate airport operations.
Schultz says the federal government should roll back its caps on how much airports can charge passengers for capital improvements. The law caps this fee currently at $4.50. A bill to raise that cap has been proposed.
On water quality projects and flood fighting, Fischer and Raybould both said they see a federal role for supporting the efforts of local natural resources districts.
Fischer pointed to her work with small communities on grants to improve water quality and her efforts to ease regulations that affect Omaha’s sewer separation project.
Raybould says Congress needs to be more creative in its infrastructure requirements , raising standards for roads, bridges and other infrastructure so they can withstand flooding in a changing climate.
Schultz says he would rather see the federal government build fewer levees to lift marginal land out of the flood plain and do more to discourage building in the flood plain, including privatizing flood insurance.