The Politics Surrounding Ralph Abraham’s Rural Infrastructure Bill Are Interesting…

…seeing as though it’s a bill being introduced in Congress which may or may not have any chance of passing, you might miss some of how this will play in Louisiana – and particularly with Abraham, Louisiana’s congressman from the 5th District, considering a run for governor next year.

In case you’re not aware of what we’re talking about, here was the press release Abraham’s office put out yesterday…

Congressman Ralph Abraham, M.D., R-Alto, introduced a bill Wednesday to provide rural communities with access to more than $2 billion in grant funding for infrastructure improvements.

The Revitalize Rural America Act creates a $2.1 billion grant program administered by the Secretary of Transportation to fund rural infrastructure projects such as improving and expanding federal-aid highways, tunnels and bridges; expanding broadband internet access; water and wastewater projects; navigation projects; and electrical grid projects in rural areas.

States, local governments and other public and private entities would be eligible to apply for the grants, and awards would go directly to the winning entity, rather than funneled through state governments for distribution.

“Our country has an infrastructure problem, and too often rural America gets left out of funding opportunities. My bill will provide rural Americans with direct access to billions of dollars that they can use to address critical needs in their communities, like fixing water systems, building bridges and expanding broadband internet,” Dr. Abraham said.

The grant program will be funded by redirecting money earmarked for beautification and recreational programs in the FAST Act, the five-year transportation funding bill passed in 2015, and reducing funding for the Capital Investment Grant, a program that builds streetcars and trams mostly in large urban areas in California, New York and Florida.

“No American should see brown water coming out of their faucets while the federal government is building gardens and bike trails in cities. My bill redirects federal funds currently going to urban wish-list projects and sends them back to local communities where rural Americans can make the investments their towns need to grow and succeed,” Dr. Abraham said.

We’re not suggesting this bill was introduced on a solely political basis, or anything like that. There is unquestionably a need regarding infrastructure in rural areas, and it’s being ignored particularly in states where big-city politics dominates at the capitol. Louisiana is to a large extent one of those, but it’s especially true in blue states like California, Illinois and New York. As such, Abraham is pushing a legitimate concern.

But analyzing it in terms of Louisiana politics is an interesting pursuit in advance of seeing whether this bill is going to go anywhere, because if you’ll notice, the key feature of this grant program is it explicitly bypasses the state capitols. And yes, that’s a way to get infrastructure projects past Jerry Brown in California or Andrew Cuomo in New York and into places like the Central Valley in California or Wyoming or Cayuga Counties in New York.

But it’s also a way to push rural broadband into North Louisiana or widen roads in the Florida Parishes. And so far we’ve seen that John Bel Edwards has been more than willing to hold up infrastructure projects in the state’s capital outlay program as punishment for legislators who won’t vote for his agenda.

Most prominent in Edwards’ retaliation has been a few decisions he’s made on flood control in Jefferson and St. Tammany Parishes, for example. Those are obviously not rural places. But the abuse of the capital outlay program to punish political enemies has touched the rural legislators as well, and given the state of Louisiana’s rural infrastructure you can imagine this is something state legislators particularly but not solely on the Republican side are very concerned about.

The rural parishes generally don’t have enough money to tackle these infrastructure issues locally. They need state or federal help to do them effectively.

And in the case of transportation infrastructure in Louisiana that means dealing with the historically-inept Department of Transportation and Development, which has never, never been an effective state agency unless you want to measure it by the percentage of its funding that it wastes.

So this is certainly a plan which would be well-received by the rural folks. It certainly won’t be well-received on the 4th floor of Louisiana’s capitol, because it would represent an end run around Edwards’ control of the process.

It will be interesting to see if the governor is motivated to take potshots at Abraham’s plan in the event it moves forward. Edwards’ increasing vitriol toward another potential gubernatorial rival in 2019, John Kennedy, is also worth a notice. If you haven’t seen the letter the governor wrote to Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley complaining about Kennedy’s statements on Louisiana’s criminal justice reform package, this will be an eye-opener…

If you’ll notice the tone here, it’s an attempt to gaslight Kennedy by apologizing for him the way Kennedy often does to Edwards.

Edwards’ treatment of Attorney General Jeff Landry, who might also be a 2019 gubernatorial candidate but is also clearly a political adversary of the governor’s, is no friendlier. The two are usually in court against each other and will probably be throwing bombs back and forth across Capitol Lake over the issue of Louisiana’s efforts to seek redress against opioid manufacturers (see a somewhat-informative but not all that balanced presentation of that conflict here).

Abraham’s bill, as it’s one of the first acts which could be interpreted as a substantive shot at Edwards, may put him in the arena for receipt of the governor’s vitriol.

That said, Edwards is in a bit of a box here. A large amount of his support in the 2015 election came from big numbers he was able to run up both in the primary and in the runoff against David Vitter. If he attacks Abraham over his rural development fund, he’ll need to be careful not to have that be interpreted as opposition to building things in rural areas of the state – Louisiana’s rural voters tend to be a little more fickle than, say, the partisan Democrats in Orleans Parish or the conservatives in the suburbs in Ascension or Bossier, and he can lose them fairly easily.

Also, with his continuing back-and-forth battles with Kennedy and Landry Edwards also has to be careful not to make it look like he’s at war with every other politician in the state. At some point, when he’s throwing bombs at Kennedy and Landry, plus the House of Representatives, plus Sen. Sharon Hewitt, maybe at some point with John Schroder, occasionally even with Garret Graves…it’s possible the voters may get the impression that perhaps it’s not all these Republicans, who were elected just like Edwards was, who are the problem. They might conclude that maybe John Bel Edwards is a jerk who can’t get along with anybody.

That’s particularly a concern with Abraham, who doesn’t come off as abrasive or partisan in the way Landry and Kennedy are sometimes portrayed as being. You start trashing Abraham and you really are the jerk.

In any event, it’s an interesting item to watch as it relates to Abraham’s potential gubernatorial run. If he’s able to pass a rural development bill which cuts the state out of the capital outlay food chain he might well cause the governor a major headache with a segment of voters he claimed as a base in 2015.

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