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Democratic Candidates Court Unions With Infrastructure Pitch

By Admin

As Reported By Ken Thomas for The Wall Street Journal

LAS VEGAS—Democratic presidential candidates said Sunday that the U.S. faces an urgent need to rebuild the nation’s roads, bridges and highways, appealing to union workers ahead of Nevada’s Feb. 22 caucuses.

Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer courted several labor unions Sunday at a forum sponsored by United for Infrastructure, a nonprofit organization made up of labor unions and trade associations.

The candidates said upgrading the country’s aging transportation system has been a promise that President Trump failed to keep during his first term and that their own infrastructure plans could serve as a counterweight to his re-election message.

During his presidency, Mr. Trump has sought $1 trillion in infrastructure improvements. Democrats have noted that his plan would press cities and states to provide at least 80% of the funding.

“Do you remember one of the things that he promised? Infrastructure,” said Ms. Klobuchar, a Minnesota senator, recalling the president’s victory speech after the 2016 election. “While Congress has kept the funding going in some of the areas, we have not seen the big infrastructure investment that he promised—not one that keeps our country competitive.”

Mr. Biden, the former vice president, said the country could simultaneously fix the nation’s crumbling infrastructure while ensuring it was improved to become more resilient to climate change. “I think you do both,” he said. One of his proposals includes adding 500,000 charging stations for electric vehicles.

“I believe the Band-Aid has been ripped off and people are ready to do rational things,” Mr. Biden said, describing a Congress in which both parties might be ready to reach a deal on infrastructure.

The candidates have offered plans to overhaul the nation’s transportation network and create construction jobs, intended in part to draw a contrast with the president, whose proposals have languished despite bipartisan attempts in Congress to forge a broad plan to repair the country’s infrastructure.

Organized labor has long been a political force in Nevada and plays a more significant role in the state than in Iowa and New Hampshire, which held the first two presidential nominating contests.

Mr. Biden has proposed a $1.3 trillion plan to rebuild roads, bridges and highways and promote a high-speed rail system. Ms. Klobuchar, who made infrastructure the subject of the first policy rollout of her campaign, would spend $1 trillion on the projects, including $650 billion in direct federal funding for infrastructure.

Mr. Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., has outlined a program to put $1 trillion into infrastructure in partnership with states and cities, a plan that he says would create 6 million jobs. Mr. Steyer, meanwhile, has proposed dedicating $2 trillion in public spending to promote “climate-smart” infrastructure.

The plans have also been at the center of how the candidates intend to address climate change.

Mr. Steyer, a billionaire businessman, said that if elected he would declare a climate emergency on his first day in office, and infrastructure spending would work in tandem with his climate-change agenda.

“Everything we’re going to do we’re going to do from the standpoint of climate,” he said.

Mr. Buttigieg, who recently finished his second term as mayor, pointed to the frustration that many municipal leaders had after Mr. Trump released his infrastructure proposal. He said it would have had many state and local officials “do most of the work and come up with most of the money.”

Mr. Buttigieg said the nation had “an opportunity to do something different and take the ‘Infrastructure week’ back from being a punchline and actually make sure it is a template for a better future.” He was referring to weeks in which the administration said it planned to push lawmakers to come to terms on legislation, efforts that were sometimes overshadowed by other topics raised by the president.

The Democratic candidates proposing infrastructure upgrades said they would pay for them largely by undoing Mr. Trump’s tax cuts for businesses, along with a variety of other steps.

One funding issue the next administration may be confronted with is how to replenish the Highway Trust Fund, which gets its revenue from federal fuels taxes. The trust fund has faced a shortfall because fuel taxes haven’t been raised in a quarter-century while increased vehicle efficiency has cut into gasoline and diesel consumption.

But the candidates said it was unlikely that Congress would approve a gas-tax increase. Mr. Biden, for example, said he would devote $50 billion from the higher taxes on corporations to bolster the trust fund but said flatly, “We’re not going to be able to raise the gas tax.” He did, however, say that Congress might be able to index the tax for inflation.

The forum Sunday, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was moderated by The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib and Jeanne Cummings.

The forum was a showcase for the candidates before organized labor.

The most powerful union in Nevada, Culinary 226, which represents about 60,000 members from the hospitality industry, said Friday it wouldn’t endorse a presidential candidate before the caucuses.

Most of the nation’s largest labor unions have stayed on the sidelines in the 2020 primaries, but some labor organizations have signaled plans to become more active.

The candidates said they would honor prevailing wage laws, including the Davis-Bacon law, which they said would ensure that workers receive fair wages. They also vowed to prevent corporations from taking over federal apprenticeship programs, a key concern for building trades and other unions.

The leading Democratic presidential contenders, along with Mr. Trump, were invited to participate in the forum. On the Democratic side, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren chose not to attend.

The event’s host committee included: International Union of Operating Engineers; Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO; North America’s Building Trades Unions; Transport Workers Union of America; American Society of Civil Engineers; American Public Transportation Association; American Council of Engineering Companies; American Road and Transportation Builders Association; Value of Water Campaign; Association of Equipment Manufacturers; Airports Council International-North America; and Build Together.