Our Water and Wastewater Facilities Need Rebuilding. But Who Will Step Up to Pay the Bill?

But only if somebody else, or nobody, has to pay for it. And if that’s the case, how will it ever get built or rehabbed?

As I write this, President Biden has offered an infrastructure plan that includes substantial funds for water and wastewater infrastructure. And much else, of course.

Everybody likes that general idea. Everyone knows our infrastructure needs investment. Everyone knows that building and fixing infrastructure creates good-paying jobs. Everyone knows that sound infrastructure is fundamental to a strong economy and a secure nation.

There’s only one problem. No one wants to pay for it. And as long as that is true, how will anything ever get done?

Means of avoidance

When it comes to paying a couple trillion dollars for an infrastructure plan, there are all kinds of dodges and fantasies. One is that public/private partnerships can magically cover the majority of the cost. The idea here is that we can get the private sector to build things with a certain percentage of public funding, and then the private sector can impose user charges.

That might be feasible for highways and bridges, which can be financed by way of tolls, but I have yet to see toll-funded sewers or water mains or treatment plants. User charges, yes, but the size of investment needed for the water and sewer infrastructure would in many, if not most cases dwarf homeowners’ and businesses’ ability to pay in that manner.

Another fantasy, which I heard a governor espouse on a Sunday talk show, is we can pay for infrastructure by “growing the economy.” In other words, set policies that lead to more high-paying jobs, thus more tax revenue, which in turn will pay the bills. That sounds good, but I have yet to see an explanation of exactly how this works or a shred of evidence that it can.

Tax the other guy

Another school of thought says the plan has to be accompanied by specific sources of revenue, which mostly means taxes. And taxes are fine with everyone, as long as the tax is on someone else. The saying, as a lobbyist once put it to me, goes like this: “Don’t tax you. Don’t tax me. Tax that fella behind the tree.”

So the president’s plan as first announced was to raise a couple trillion dollars by increasing taxes on corporations. Of course, the corporations don’t like that, and nor do the Republicans in Congress; that basically makes the idea a non-starter as long as there is such a thing as a filibuster in the Senate.

But if not corporations, then who? The president has pledged not to raise taxes by a single penny on any person or family earning less than $400,000 a year. His party certainly aligns with that, and so do the Republicans who don’t believe in raising taxes, on anyone, at any time, for any reason whatsoever.

But it’s doubtful that enough money could be wrung out of high earners (millionaires, billionaires) to cover trillions in spending. So then, what does that leave?

The default

What it leaves is the national credit card, which has been used for decades to fund wars, a vast Medicare drug program, disaster aid after many catastrophic storms, massive tax cuts, COVID relief and much more. Will we pay for infrastructure that way, too? And send the national debt over the $30 trillion mark (if it isn’t there already)?

I get a little tired of hearing politicians proclaim that we can never raise taxes on “hardworking Americans.” Sure, we work hard, but how or why should that exempt us from paying more in taxes for national necessities that benefit all of us?

Taxes have been repeatedly cut over the past few decades and, contrary to popular folklore, not only for the wealthy and corporations. What’s wrong with revisiting the tax structure and finding fair, equitable ways to pay for big, expensive things that we all know we need?

And what’s wrong with starting from the assumption that we should all contribute in some proportion to our ability to pay? If we can agree on that basic principle, then maybe we can make a start toward reliable funding for infrastructure and other critical priorities.   


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