After meeting with Biden, King praises broadband investment plan

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Scott Thistle, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·6 min read
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Apr. 19—Maine Sen. Angus King said he and a bipartisan group of colleagues had a productive and substantive meeting with President Joe Biden on Monday to discuss his $2.3 trillion infrastructure package, which includes money for broadband expansion in Maine that King said would be "transformative."

But he said some Republicans are unwilling to roll back corporate tax cuts made under former president Donald Trump to pay for the whopping investment that touches on everything fixing roads and bridges to expanding access to high-speed internet in rural parts of the U.S.

King, an independent and one of several former governors or mayors in the group of 10 members of Congress, said he was thrust into the roll of moderator for the session between Republicans, Democrats and the president.

"The President mostly listened," said King, who quipped that the role of moderator reminded him of his days hosting the Maine Public Broadcasting show, "Maine Calling."

King said Biden's proposal would have a broad reach and deep impact for Maine.

"Practically all of the bill would apply in Maine," King said, adding that he believes the most critical piece is the funding to expand high-speed broadband internet connections for every household in Maine. Under the proposal, Maine would see as much as $100 million in federal aid to expand broadband access.

"If that ends up being the number Maine should get enough money to connect every household in the state with a high-speed broadband connection, which would be transformative," King said.

The Maine Legislature has also been contemplating a variety of ways to fund a broadband expansion for the state, and in 2020 voters approved a $15 million bonding package to start that expansion.

But Biden's American Jobs Plan would also fund road and bridge reconstruction and public transit, new housing and schools, among a host of other initiatives.

On top of contesting how Biden would pay for the package, Republicans have also questioned its size, scope and contents, saying they don't consider some of the initiatives, like funding to expand home-based care programs for the elderly, as infrastructure.,

Last week Biden's administration released grades on the infrastructure needs of the 50 states last week, giving Maine a "C" mark.

Maine's grade was based in part on the fact there are 315 bridges and more than 1,438 miles of highway in poor condition in the state, according to a report by the Associated Press. Since 2011, commute times have increased by 1.9 percent and on average, each driver in Maine pays $543 per year in costs due to driving on roads in need of repair. The state was also graded on housing: 68,000 renters in Maine are rent burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent.

King, who caucuses with Democrats in the Senate majority, could play a central role in negotiations but his vote for the package will also be essential for Biden in a Senate that's split evenly between Republicans and Democrats.

The group meeting with the president Monday included several former governors and big city mayors, including U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who served as governor in Massachusetts and U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colorado, a former governor of that state. Also joining the meeting Monday was U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a former Democratic candidate for president and the former mayor of Indianapolis.

"We're going to talk about our infrastructure package," Biden told the lawmakers at the start of the meeting, according to press read-out of his remarks, "and as I indicated earlier, I am prepared to compromise, prepared to see what we can do and what we can get together on. It's a big package, but there's a lot of needs. And so we're going to be talking about, number one, what should be included in the package — obviously, I put a lot in the package; I think it all should be included — and how to pay for it."

King said the so-called "pay for" was going to be the major sticking point for Republicans who don't want to unravel the massive corporate tax cuts they see as important to Trump's legacy.

The Oval Office meeting was the second between the President and members of Congress as he works to advance the massive spending plan span, which would take place over eight years and be funded by a 7 percent increase in the federal corporate income tax rate. The increase would push the rate from 21 percent to 28 percent.

Biden's proposal includes 20,000 miles of highway construction, repairs to 10,000 bridges, a broadband expansion to rural America and replacing all of the nation's lead pipes and water service lines. Other components of the package look to provide funding for research and development, new manufacturing and expanding access to local health and home care programs.

Maine's other members of Congress have offered a mixed reaction to the President's proposal. First District U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree called it a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to tackle some of the nation's biggest problems, including the climate crisis, crumbling road and bridge infrastructure and the broadband expansion.

"To pay for this plan and reduce the deficit, President Biden has proposed a tax code that rewards work not wealth," Pingree said. "For years, Fortune 500 companies have paid zero taxes while shipping jobs overseas. This practice is indefensible and must end. I support the President's approach to bringing about overdue tax fairness and creating good-paying, unionized jobs in the process."

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has voiced reservations about the cost and contents of the package while Maine's 2nd District U.S. Congressman Jared Golden, a Democrat, has remained relatively quiet on the proposal.

In a statement Monday, Collins said that as the ranking Republican on the Transportation Appropriations Committee, she has long supported investment in U.S. transportation networks and expanded access to broadband.

"What the Biden Administration has proposed, however, seems to be a vehicle for major, unrelated policy changes rather than an effort to modernize and rebuild our infrastructure," Collins said. "For example, the package would spend $174 billion on electric vehicle provisions, which is more than the package would spend on traditional infrastructure like roads, bridges, waterways, seaports, and airports combined."

"I am ready to work with Republicans, Democrats, and the Administration on a targeted bill to enhance safety, move people and products more efficiently, and create jobs," Collins said.