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DEB FISCHER: What I want to see in a bipartisan infrastructure agreement

DEB FISCHER: What I want to see in a bipartisan infrastructure agreement

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You may have heard that on July 21, the U.S. Senate held a vote to begin debate on a bipartisan infrastructure bill.

But you may not have heard that the vote was held before the bill had actually been written. In effect, we were asked to vote to bring up a bill that could end up looking vastly different than we expected.

In moments like this, I understand the frustration many Americans feel with Congress, so I would like to reach out to you to explain a bit about how big legislation happens. Things can change quickly, but here is how things stand as of when I wrote this column on Monday, July 26.

Making major policy changes takes time. When I drafted the Build Nebraska Act in 2010 and introduced it in the 2011 Nebraska Legislature, it took time. I worked with stakeholders, with the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee counsel, the Legislature’s Fiscal Office, and the Nebraska Department of Roads for many months. It also took time to socialize the legislation with my colleagues and build consensus and support.

Taking that time was worth it to Nebraskans — we passed overwhelmingly major legislation that has stood the test of time and proven to be successful.

I see that same potential for success in this coming bipartisan Senate infrastructure proposal. When the group releases their draft bill, it will be the product of weeks of work by a group of more than 20 senators who want to make bipartisan investments in America’s infrastructure.

I have reached out to both Republican and Democratic members of the bipartisan group with suggestions for the draft proposal. Their work builds on numerous hearings and markups that Senate committees, including ones I sit on, have held over the last couple of years to address this issue.

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has also reached out to me a few times as we have worked on this bill. I told him I believe the bipartisan proposal should focus on core infrastructure – think roads, bridges, railroads, ports, airports, waterways, and broadband. It should make crucial and long-overdue investments to bring our infrastructure into the 21st century. And it needs to use committed revenue sources to pay for it. That’s how we do this in Nebraska, and it works.

Roads and bridges form the backbone of our transportation system, and I want to make sure this proposal will recognize that. The Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act, approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee earlier this year, should be part of any final bill. It would provide more than $300 billion over five years for highway and bridge programs, including nearly $2 billion for Nebraska over that time.

It will also be crucial for this agreement to maintain the same tried-and-true ways of distributing funding that Congress has relied on in the past. That means maintaining the highway funding formulas last authorized in the FAST Act, which I helped author in 2015. These formulas ensure that less densely populated states like Nebraska don’t lose out.

Along with roads and bridges, railroads and airports are equally vital to commerce. The bipartisan infrastructure framework outlines funding to improve both of these modes of transportation, and I encourage the negotiators to use the Surface Transportation Investment Act, approved by the Senate Commerce Committee earlier this year, as a basis for their discussions. That bill includes two bills I introduced that would help address blocked railroad crossings and establish an office at the Department of Transportation that would focus on rural America’s infrastructure needs.

A longtime priority of mine, broadband, should also see major investment under this proposal. In the digital age, internet networks, like roadways, are critical to connecting communities. The bipartisan framework aims to provide up to $65 billion to bring reliable broadband to communities that may not have it now, such as rural Nebraska, over the next five years.

I want to make sure this legislation thoroughly accounts for how this money is spent and carefully invests it with proper oversight. We have an opportunity to close the digital divide, but we must ensure we don’t waste taxpayer dollars on redundant or unfinished projects.

Households without an internet connection meeting the current broadband speed definition need this funding first, and the proposal shouldn’t interfere with state laws or introduce new and unnecessary regulatory burdens that limit our ability to build the very infrastructure we want to fund.

I voted against opening debate on this bill because the final version didn’t exist at the time of the vote, not because I oppose making bipartisan investments in our infrastructure. In fact, if we get it right, this proposal has the potential to reshape our transportation networks for generations to come.

Infrastructure is and always has been a bipartisan issue. When the negotiators finish their work, I look forward to participating in a healthy debate on this critical investment in our nation’s future.

Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.

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