Between the massive infrastructure package that President Joe Biden is expected to announce later this week and a revised budget process, Massachusetts is well-positioned to emerge from upcoming Congressional debate as a big winner, U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch said Monday morning.
Biden is planning to roll out the first phase of a $3 to $4 trillion plan Wednesday in Pittsburgh, focusing first on “traditional” transportation projects, Lynch said. The White House is also expected to begin detailing Biden’s first budget this week. When the spending plans move through Congress, lawmakers are planning to include “community projects” — essentially a new name and process for earmarks — Lynch said, and Massachusetts will have leverage through its representation on the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
“When you look at it, state-by-state, per capita, Massachusetts has more sitting members on the Transportation Committee than any other state. There are other states that have more members than we do, like New York and California and Texas … but when you consider our size, we’re fourth in total number of members on Transportation,” the South Boston Congressman told the New England Council on Monday. “So it gives us a real bit of leverage on our projects.”
In the appropriations process, each member of Congress will be able to seek dedicated funding for up to 10 projects that have a demonstrated level of local support and Lynch said he would expect that a handful of those 10 would be selected for inclusion in a final package. Unlike the old Congressional earmark process, the funding for these community projects must only go to a state or local government, or a nonprofit organization, he said.
Among the projects that Lynch mentioned Monday was an east-west passenger rail extension in Massachusetts, an idea that’s been the topic of much discussion in recent months, as well as cost-benefit analyses.
“We realize as a state and as a delegation, the East-West Rail piece … is so important to opening up the housing opportunities,” he said, noting that sky-high housing prices in and immediately around Boston are pricing out workers and businesses.
“What I’m hoping is that with East-West Rail we might be able to make those western suburbs and outlying suburbs around Greater Boston more attractive places to live so people can get in and out of the city, and continue to work there and have a vibrant, vibrant community extending up into southern New Hampshire and down into Rhode Island and Connecticut,” he said. “We lose a lot of talent in Boston and New England because of housing prices. So if we can use that rail project to make the connection between workers that need more affordable housing and those nearby suburbs, I think that’s a great blueprint for the future.”
He said the long-discussed east-west rail proposal is not as close to being shovel ready as other projects that will compete for the funding but likened its status to when former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill and former Rules Committee Chairman Joe Moakley “did the pick-and-spade work” to get the Big Dig positioned to move forward.
“We are at that moment now in the New England delegation where some of these big projects are being primed,” Lynch said when asked if east-west rail was the top priority for the state’s Congressional delegation.
Lynch was not entirely accurate in his count of Transportation Committee members. Massachusetts has three representatives on the committee, all of them in the more powerful Democratic majority: Lynch, and U.S. Reps. Seth Moulton and Jake Auchincloss. California has nine members of the committee, Texas has six, and New York, Illinois, Florida, and New Jersey all have four members between both parties. Like Massachusetts, Georgia and Pennsylvania also have three representatives on the committee.
Moulton and Auchincloss just joined Lynch on the Transportation Committee this Congress, assignments that he said were engineered by U.S. Rep. Richard Neal echoing the way O’Neill and Moakley worked to get members of the Massachusetts delegation assigned to key committee posts in decades past.
Lynch said he was told in meetings last week, including with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, that Biden is planning to pursue his transportation and infrastructure bill in two parts: the first focused on “traditional transportation projects” and rural broadband.
“We found that during the pandemic a lot of these rural communities, especially in red states, were not able to do the home learning piece because of poor broadband connections in those communities. So we see the urgency of that,” Lynch said. “There’s also, politically, we’re trying to get Republicans on board on this transportation bill and it benefits their districts more heavily.”
The second phase of the package, Lynch said, would be focused on “human infrastructure” like affordable housing and schools.
New England Council President and CEO James Brett told Lynch on Monday that the questions most of his organization’s members would be asking is: “Who’s going to pay the bill?”
Brett mentioned talk about increasing the corporate tax rate from 21% to 27%, raising the top personal income tax rate from 37% to 39%, or adjusting the capital gains or estate taxes.
“There is talk about increasing the top marginal rates, there are. I’m not sure what the number is going to be, but they are talking about that,” Lynch said. “They’re trying to, I think, reapportion the tax burden to be less burdensome on the middle class and lower-income, and put it more on the high-end earners. So that seems to be the formula the president is using.”
Lynch said there had been talks about increasing the federal gas tax to help pay for infrastructure and transportation projects, but Biden and Buttigieg “backed away from that” because of Biden’s commitment not to raise taxes on people making less than $400,000 per year.
“We’ve got a lot ahead of us. It’s an exciting time, though, I have to say. This is a real moment,” Lynch said. “We’re gonna have to figure out if we expand the amount of economic activity, can we generate the taxes to support all of this? I think that’s possible, but we’ve got to be wise in our decisions.”
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