Toll road operators push to keep privatization in the bipartisan infrastructure deal

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Highlights

First, the good news…

1) NationalPowerSwitch Action, formerly the Partnership for Working Families, has set out an agenda for collective liberation. “Between 2017 and 2020, the leaders of our network and national staff embarked on a long term agenda process to understand the conditions in which we are operating, imagine what a people-and planet-centered economy looks like, and find strategies to get us there over the next decades.

“When we came together to envision what freedom means for our communities, we saw a world where housing and land are not commodities, where housing is a right and land is commonly-owned, stewarded and protected. In the future we’re forging as a network, the economy, its mechanisms and the rules for how goods are produced, services delivered, and wealth produced are governed democratically. We are reimagining public safety and demanding that budgets devoted to policing and incarceration be directed instead to housing, mental health clinics, education, recreation, and all the things that truly keep us safe. And playing to win means we need to aspire to be a clear, organized, and mobilized majority.

“This requires fundamentally transforming our democracy: expanding and strengthening the voices of everyday people in shaping the economy, government, and public goods in local communities. It requires taking on direct fights to stop the extractive, racist, exploitative practices of corporations. If we are successful, we will ensure that the economy is designed to provide for Black, Indigenous, people of color and gender-oppressed people.

“Building pluralistic, multi-racial, and feminist bases of people power through which we can transform our towns, cities, communities is central to our work. This is accomplished in part through youth organizing initiatives, new tenant organizations, and new worker organizations.” Watch the video, about five minutes. Follow @powerswitchact on Twitter.

2) National: “Congratulations, Jeff. You did the same thing NASA did back in 1961 when it sent the first American to space. Now, pay your taxes,” writes Jeremy Mohler of In the Public Interest. “If [our tax system] was fairer, our government could afford to make people’s lives better here, you know, on Earth. By doing things like Raleigh, North Carolina, just did when it extended free public bus fares through the rest of the year. And like Washington, D.C., just did when it raised taxes on the rich to fund housing vouchers, subsidies for day-care workers’ wages, and monthly tax credits for low-income families.” Jacobin’s Luke Savage remarks that “to add to the general aura of unreality, mainstream sources of officialdom and opinion-making from the Biden administration to cable news have been content to discuss recent billionaire vanity outings as if they’re somehow major public achievements.”

Patrick Mazza adds an historical note: “In reality, cowboys were low-paid hired hands who generally stayed that way, a third of them people of color. Kind of like Amazon warehouse workers. While the West was the region where the federal government was most involved. It provided subsidies and land grants to railroads, as the U.S. Army pushed native tribes onto reservations. The cattle industry would not have been possible without those government interventions. Just as space travel would not be possible without decades of public investment, let alone the computer and transportation networks on which Bezos and Amazon rely to make their billions.”

3) National: On Thursday, 150 organizations signed an open letter calling on President Biden to reaffirm his commitment to passing voting rights legislation, and taking issue with his continued rejection of doing away with the filibuster to advance the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. “While we fully support the ideal of bipartisan cooperation on voting rights, the partisan political agenda of some in the Senate cannot be allowed to block passage of legislation that has broad bipartisan backing. And we certainly cannot allow an arcane Senate procedural rule to derail efforts that a majority of Americans support.”

4) National: Derrick Z. Jackson tells the story of how Boston’s Charles River went from polluted to pristine, and what the cleanup shows us about the power of federal waterway protections. “It is the protection of the Charles’ watershed that EPA Administrator Regan should keep in mind as he sets forth to protect more American waterways. Despite accounting for fewer than six percent of the United States landscape, freshwater scientists consider wetlands to be precious jewels of the ecosystem.”

5) National: The House Oversight and Reform Committee last week issued a committee report on the Postal Service Reform Act of 2021, HR 3076. The American Postal Workers Union (APWU) warns that a Republican filibuster of the Senate version may block the legislation, and says the archaic filibuster should be eliminated. “The bill, if passed into law, will place USPS on the path toward financial stability,” APWU says, “by adding much-needed transparency to the Postal Service, enacting prospective Medicare integration, ensuring six-day delivery, and repealing the unfair pre-funding mandate.”

“I would like the USPS to be around for another 245 years,” says Andrew Kubat, Lehigh Valley Area Local President of APWU. ‘\”It’s a public service & that’s what we’re here to do—serve the public.” 

6) National: Tired of bad news about the collapse of local news organizations and the loss of critical coverage of state and local issues, including privatization? Well here’s some good news about how Block Club Chicago, Grist, and VTDigger have flourished. “Overall, the seven nonprofit news publishers participating in the inaugural 2020 Sponsorships Lab reported more than 81% year-over-year (YOY) growth in earned revenue from October 2020 through June 2021. Visit the GNI-INN Sponsorships Lab page to access all resources, including two case studies published last year and the user-friendly Nonprofit News Guide to Earned Revenue, which provides comprehensive best practices from the program.”

7) California: The State of California has expanded access to health insurance for undocumented immigrants. “With California continuing to lead the nation in its inclusion of immigrants, Capital & Main spoke to immigrant rights advocate Cynthia Buiza to understand how we got here and what comes next. Buiza directs the California Immigrant Policy Center, a progressive statewide coalition of organizations that develops and promotes policies to help immigrants integrate and access health care and public benefits.” 

8) California: Twelve bills that would use the power of government to improve workers’ lives and working conditions are now before the California legislature. Union-side labor lawyer Daniel Curry of knock-la.com has a summary.

9) California: The state has approved $500 million in a first of its kind fund to prevent real estate profiteering and to help families, land trusts and nonprofits purchase foreclosed properties

10) MissouriIn a major victory for low-income Missourians, the state Supreme Court has ruled that Medicaid expansion must be implemented. The expansion was mandated by voters in a referendum but Republicans refused to implement it. “‘As a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling, Missourians across the state will finally be able to realize the health and economic benefits of Medicaid expansion,’ the Missouri Budget Project said in a statement. ‘State after state has shown that in addition to providing insurance to those eligible, expansion is a fiscal and economic boon to state economies and budgets.’ An estimated 275,000 people in Missouri could gain coverage under the expansion of Medicaid’s eligibility.” Democrats in Congress “are currently exploring ways to have the federal government step in and provide coverage in the 12 holdout states, a measure that could be included in the coming infrastructure package using the fast-track process of reconciliation.” 

11) Think Tanks: Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research makes the case for direct government funding of pharmaceutical research instead of the patent system. “In addition to getting lower priced drugs, and eliminating the perverse incentives created by patent monopolies, direct funding would also allow for open-source research. This means that all researchers could quickly learn from the successes and failures of others doing similar work.”

12) Meeting this week: Starting today and going through Thursday, the Future Cities Summit is taking place as a virtual event. Participants will include Bill Peduto, Mayor, Pittsburgh, PA; Chokwe Antar Lumumba, Mayor, Jackson, MS; Kristerfer Burnett, Councilmember, Baltimore, MD; John Samuelson, International President, Transport Workers Union; Brooks Rainwater, Senior Executive and Director, Center for City Solutions, National League of Cities; Will Jawando, Councilmember, Montgomery County, MD/NewDEAL Leader; and Caylin Young, Public Policy Director, ACLU of Maryland. [Whole speakers listagendaregister (free)]. Underwriters include Amazon, Cisco, Dell, and Zoom. Partners include In the Public Interest.

Education

13) National/International/Think Tanks: Billions of dollars have been wiped off the stock values of private education companies as the Chinese government considers banning profit-making in education, the Financial Times reports. [Sub required] Dan Cohen, a researcher on the marketization of education, draws the connection to the U.S. “This move and the related drop in EdTech stock valuations in China highlight just how much edu privatization depends on what’s going on in the public system. And how much financial speculation in the space relies on government (lack of) regulation… not just in China.”

14) NationalWriting in Forbes, Peter Greene takes on for-profit charters, which would be banned from getting federal money in a House education bill. “The presence of for-profit operators in the charter school sector has long been a concern for critics, with almost all states outlawing a charter school strictly run for profit. But charter school operators have long worked a variety of loopholes, keeping the sector a highly profitable one, and most of those loopholes involve a non-profit charter school hiring a for-profit business. (…) Sometimes the money comes from the real estate side of the charter business. There is such a thing as a business that specializes in charter schools and real estate. In some states, the government will help finance a real estate development if it’s a charter school, and in general developers have noted an abundance of cash. Though, as one charter real estate loan bond financier told the Wall Street Journal, “There’s a ton of capital coming into the industry. The question is: Does it know what it’s doing?” Many states have found a problem with charters that lease their buildings from their own owners as well.” 

15) District of Columbia: The Washington Post reports that the District’s largest charter network, KIPP DC, “wants to offer an ­all-virtual option in the fall to any student who meets certain academic qualifications—a break from the mayor’s announcement that only children who have ­doctor-approved medical exemptions would be allowed to remain virtual. (…) In D.C., White teens are more than twice as likely to have received a vaccination than Black teens. Depending on health guidelines in the fall, that could mean that teens in schools with low vaccination rates could have to spend more time out of school quarantining.”

16) Louisiana: The new bill proposed by the House Appropriation Committee that would cut federal funding from for-profit charter schools by the millions is raising hackles in Louisiana. ““We would have to choose between, ‘do we want to continue our relationship with this for-profit company or do we end that relationship so that we may continue to receive federal funds,’” said Thibodeaux. Although he’s confident the bill won’t pass, he still doesn’t understand why they’re being targeted.” There are three schools in Lake Charles that contract with Charter Schools USA.

17) Missouri: Ray Cummings, president of AFT St. Louis Local 420, weighs in on how full service funding would make local schools better. “Evidence from school districts across the country that have created full-service-type schools shows they help to improve student outcomes and can make a real difference in the lives of children and their families. This is a far cry from the scant, at best, evidence that comes from school privatization efforts, despite advocates’ puffed-up claims and promises. With the support of school Superintendent Kelvin Adams, we will work tirelessly for expanding the number of full-service schools. It’s time our district got its fair share for a fair shot at providing what St. Louis children need to succeed.” 

18) New Mexico: Maureen Cashmon of Santa Fe writes in a letter to the editor, “As a community member, parent of former Santa Fe Public Schools students and a past school board member, I do not support adding another public charter school to the Santa Fe community. The proposed Thrive Community Charter School could potentially take 600 students from the Santa Fe school district, thereby further reducing enrollment and the corresponding state funding allocations. The basic question the Public Education Commission needs to weigh is “should the benefits to potentially 600 students outweigh the needs of over 12,000 students?” With declining birth rates, limited financial resources, teacher shortages and existing charter/private schools, I believe the Santa Fe area already provides ample K-12 educational opportunities.”

Infrastructure

19) National: As the Biden-Republican infrastructure deal teeters on the brink of failure, House Democrats are pushing back against efforts to bar them from amending a Senate bill. “When it comes to infrastructure,” says The Hill, “many House Democrats are irritated by the prospect of potentially being asked to rubber-stamp whatever legislation comes out of the delicate bipartisan Senate negotiations. A group of 31 Democrats, led by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR), publicly warned Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) this week that they’re ‘concerned about suggestions that the House may take up any Senate product without input or modification.’ DeFazio and other Democrats on the Transportation and Infrastructure panel called for greater inclusion of policies in the $760 billion bill the House passed earlier this month to invest in transportation and physical infrastructure projects, arguing that ‘we should reject any effort to categorically exclude the thorough, transparent, and transformational process undertaken by the House.’”

These concerns are more than a matter of House pride but go to the substance of the proposed deal, which Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) says will be rolled out today. Key provisions of the Democratic House bill, such as transit funding, and core principles such refusing to repossess COVID aid to states (which Warner says will be part of the deal) are at stake.

In addition, significant pushback against the privatization components of the Biden-Republican infrastructure plan has emerged as proposed legislation is being drafted into text with revenue provisions. The opaque process, however, is obscuring whether or not Democrats will support privatization in either a bipartisan or reconciliation bill. David Dayen’s key question, “Would Democrats put privatization in a Democrat-only bill?,” still awaits a public answer from Capitol Hill. If they did put it in, the Democrats may preside over the selling off of the TVA and Bonneville and lots of roads, airports, broadband, etc.—all while posing as the second coming of FDR.

20) National: Meanwhile, in a blockbuster report in the American Prospect, Lee Harris warns that the privatization components of the “bipartisan” deal will lead to private equity buying up municipal utilities. “If federal dollars are shaved down enough, if the final P3 language is sufficiently business-friendly, or both, the forthcoming infrastructure package could mean open season for private-sector entrance into municipal utilities,” she writes. Among the actors Harris discusses is Bernhard Capital Partners. (For more on this company see No. 25 below)

Helping to drive this agenda are some pro-privatization former mayors of large cities, some of whom backed billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Politico reports that “a pair of bipartisan former mayors is launching an initiative to build support for using public-private partnerships as a means of paying for the trillions of dollars in infrastructure funding being debated in Washington. Former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter are spearheading the project, dubbed Let’s Build Infrastructure, which launches in D.C. [this] week with an initial six-figure ad buy.” As the Center for American Progress’ Kevin DeGood has pointed out, it is fallacious to say that P3s are a revenue source.

Nutter was a driving force behind failed efforts to privatize the Philadelphia Gas Works, and is now an advisor at Dentons, a large law firm, which he joined along with pro-privatization former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. In its media release announcing that Nutter and Rawlings-Blake were joining its team, Dentons touted its Local Government Solutions team’s commitment to privatization, public private partnerships, and infrastructure. The firm brags about its role in energy privatization, “the transfer of ownership and operation of essential public assets and services from the public to the private sector.” In welcoming the privatization components of the Biden-Republican deal, proposals to privatize the Tennessee Valley Authority and Bonneville Power Administration have been celebrated by the privatization industry.

The Intercept’s Lee Fang has a lot more on Nutter’s Let’s Build Infrastructure group, which is “boosted by toll road lobbyists.” Fang reports that “In 2019, Hans Klinger, [actually Klingler—ed.] a registered lobbyist for toll road operator Cintra, the U.S. subsidiary of the Spanish infrastructure conglomerate Ferrovial, S.A., served as director of a nonprofit called Invest in Texas Roads Now. The group promoted a partnership to build six new tolled lanes on an expressway near Dallas on Interstate 635 and four on Interstate 35 in Texas. The website for Invest in Texas Roads Now redirects to Let’s Build Infrastructure, and the two groups share the same website language, header graphic, and logo design. [Klingler], who did not respond to a request for comment, was the first and only person to retweet the Twitter promotion for Let’s Build Infrastructure before the group was unveiled in Politico [last] week. Black Diamond Strategies, the consulting firm for which [Klingler] serves as a partner, is registered to represent Cintra on issues related to transportation public-private partnerships.”

Klingler’s lobbying on privatization goes beyond municipal infrastructure. In 2017 Politico reported that he represented the GEO Group, the private, for-profit prison company. [See filing]

21) National: For a good inside-the-room discussion of the state of play on the infrastructure bills, listen to Sam Seder’s interview with Ari Rabin-Havt, the former Legislative Director and Chief Policy Advisor to Senator Bernie Sanders. [Audio, at 38:00]

22) National: Another issue snagging talks on a possible infrastructure bill is whether Davis Bacon prevailing wage policy will be included in the legislation. Reuters reported on Friday that “Democrats are threatening to scrap plans to create an infrastructure bank in the $1.2 trillion bipartisan spending bill after Republicans opposed a provision intended to lift workers’ wages, according to three people familiar with the discussions. (…) While most of the bipartisan spending bill would come under the Davis-Bacon Act, Republicans are reluctant to make wage laws apply to private companies, even when they are relying on public financing. Democrats, who are closely tied to large labor unions, also want prevailing wage laws to apply to high-speed broadband contractors, but that also faces Republican opposition. If the funding falls out of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, Democrats could add it back in to their multi-trillion spending package that they hope to pass later along party lines.” 

Politico’s Burgess Everett reports “Republicans say the bipartisan group had agreed to keep Davis-Bacon out of some aspects of the bill and some Dems are trying to renegotiate it.” More from Everett: “Lots still not done in bipartisan infra talks, per Dem aide. Highways and bridges; water funding; broadband; transit; using unused Covid aid funding; Davis-Bacon. Group had hoped to move forward tomorrow.”

23) NationalA battle is looming over President Biden’s choice to oversee federal lands. “The Bureau of Land Management is an agency within the Interior Department that oversees grazing, logging and drilling on 245 million acres of public land and manages 700 million acres of mineral rights. It is responsible for balancing oil, gas and coal extraction with recreation and the protection of natural resources. It also is key to President Biden’s goal to phase out oil and gas drilling on federal lands—a plan that is being challenged by 15 states led by Republican attorneys general.”

24) Maryland: Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich has gently pushed back against the Washington Post’s angry editorials about the rejection of a wholesale so-called public-private partnership model for the I-270/I-495 privatized toll road. “Then there’s the financing. The governor’s plan has Transurban borrowing the money for more than it would cost if the state borrowed it, then paying Transurban a premium for doing the borrowing. This project is designed to be as expensive as possible while achieving nothing that couldn’t have been achieved at a lower cost. Transurban’s tolls would make this a road where the benefit that could accrue to our taxpayers is limited by the price of admission, which will be too expensive for the average driver. (…) So, the governor is forging ahead with an overly expensive financing plan that will result in outrageous tolls, yet he has shown no interest in working with the federal government to obtain funding that would reduce project costs and result in lower tolls or make it possible for the state to finance without tolls, which I’m sure most people would prefer.”

25) New Jersey: Joseph S. Perella Jr. of Vineland pushes back against a cozy deal between a private equity behemoth and local politicians over sewer privatization. “Recently, the public became aware of secret discussions between members of the Cumberland County Utilities Authority (CCUA) and a private-equity firm, Bernhard Capital Partners of Louisiana. While no specifics have been mentioned, the concept is that the CCUA would receive an upfront “monetization” payment from Bernhard, and the company would receive certain rights to the wastewater management plant and the user fees it generates. The financial impact on ratepayers was not discussed during a subsequent public presentation. While the CCUA might receive an influx of cash in the beginning, the long-term costs of this plan were not laid out. Needless to say, there are too many remaining questions to support this deal.” (For more on Bernhard see No. 20 above)

26) Ohio: The state is continuing its efforts to restrict clean energy infrastructure, passing a law that “says county governments can pass resolutions to ban large wind and solar developments, or say that certain parts of their counties are off-limits to wind and solar projects. Developers need to give county governments at least 90 days notice before filing an application with the state regulator, the Ohio Power Siting Board, so that county officials have time to review the plan and take action before the state board begins its review.” Conservatives, who are enforcing preemption laws against local communities around the country, have a rather situational position on local control. 

Criminal Justice and Immigration

27) NationalSenator Ron Wyden (D-OR) is refusing to schedule a hearing for President Biden’s nominee to run U.S. Customs and Border Protection until the administration answers questions about the federal response to the unrest in Portland, Ore., last summer. “Mr. Wyden said that for months, he had been asking officials from the Justice and Homeland Security Departments to answer specific questions about how the agencies, under former President Donald J. Trump, prepared for the extraordinary step of sending federal law enforcement officers into the streets of Portland, and what happened on the ground, when protests there turned violent after George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in Minneapolis. (…) ‘Six months into the new administration, the Department of Homeland Security and Justice have failed to answer basic questions about how the Trump administration misused federal resources to stoke violence against peaceful protesters in my hometown,’ Mr. Wyden said in a statement.” 

It has been over three months since the GAO said “the Secretary of Homeland Security should expeditiously provide Congress with the required information that was missing from the Fiscal Year 2019-2020 Border Security Improvement Plan.” But the problems don’t stop there, says Samantha Grasso in Discourse Blog. A new GAO report “illustrates the kind of ‘mistakes’ ICE and CBP are willing to make in their quest to attack and deport migrants—and show another reason why these agencies should cease to exist.”

28) National/New Jersey: Immigrant justice organizers blockades an “ICE black site” in Newark, demanding that it be closed. “For roughly five hours, organizers from groups including Movimiento Cosecha, Abolish ICE NY-NJ, NYC ICE Watch, Never Again Action, Close the Camps, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice held a human chain that blocked two gates outside of the facility and prevented a small fleet of DHS vans from entering the site, stopping an international flight that was slated to transport detainees for the day.” Never Again Action says “After years of immigrant organizing, there’s a bill on @GovMurphy’s desk to ban ICE contracts in New Jersey. He just needs to sign it. Telephone Call Murphy’s office and tell him to sign the bill to end New Jersey’s cooperation with ICE: 609-292-6000.” 

29) National: Rapper Lil Nas X on Friday dropped a prison-themed music video for his new song ‘Industry Baby,’ with the video also serving as a fundraiser to help pay bail for those in need

30) Florida: From Jeffrey St. Clair: “In her book on Jeffrey Epstein, Perversion of Justice Julie K. Brown drives to the Florida panhandle to interview one of Epstein’s young victims, Courtney Wild, who was imprisoned at the Gadsden Correctional Institution, privately run women’s prison notorious for its wretched conditions: ‘Inmates at Gadsden were living without hot water and heat, and were forced to walk through bathrooms flooded with human waste. They were on water rations because the septic tanks were jammed.’”

31) Pennsylvania: The Lawrence County Prison Board is forming an exploratory committee to research options for privatization of the county jail. “The board approved the idea by a 5-1 vote at the time, with Commissioner Loretta Spielvogel, current prison board chairwoman, voting against it. ‘I’m still opposed,’ Spielvogel said Thursday. Her reasoning is because there’s only one county in Pennsylvania—Delaware County— that has been privatized, and the others have not, she said, and she has seen reports of discontent by Delaware County officials about the management company. Known as the George W. Hill Correctional Facility, the Delaware County jail remains county-owned, but is privately managed. ‘I would not give up the role of that type of facility to an outside organization, when it affects our county so directly, including our employees and the inmates themselves,’ she said.” 

Public Services

32) NationalLibrary Systems & Services, a leading company involved in privatizing public libraries, received $5,824,944 in Covid relief funds from the federal government. The news report lists the “forgiveness amount” as $0 but doesn’t say if they paid back the money.

33) NationalA new GAO report says the Defense Department should provide congress with more information on longstanding required improvements in the army’s housing privatization program. “Since privatizing its domestic on-base hotels, referred to as lodging, the Army has made a variety of improvements, including the replacement of lodging facilities with newly constructed hotels (see fig.). However, improvements have taken longer than initially anticipated, development plans have changed, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) has not included key information about these delays and changes in reports to Congress. If OSD were to provide this additional information, Congress would be better able to determine whether the Privatized Army Lodging (PAL) program has achieved its intended objectives or fully consider whether the other military services should privatize their respective lodging programs.”

In its budget request last week, the Defense Department provided elements of a report on privatization. “With regard to privatized housing, the department continues to prioritize actions that improve the tenant experience and rebuild tenant trust, [DOD official Paul D. Cramer] said. ‘Our initial phase was predominantly focused on implementing the [Military Housing VI Tenant Bill of Rights] and the National Defense Authorization requirements embedded in those rights,’ he told the [House Armed Services Committee]. ‘The department has issued all policy guidance necessary to implement all rights at all MHBA housing projects. With few exceptions, all 18 tenant rights are now available.’ The bill of rights commits the DOD to ensuring privatized housing tenants receive quality housing and fair treatment from the Military Housing Privatization Initiative Project owners that operate and maintain privatized housing.”

34) International: Cutting support to doctors, nurses and support staff while taking another stab at privatizing serviceswill lead us only deeper into mediocrity in Alberta health care, says letter writer Ralph Coombs, who is the former CEO of Foothills Hospital. 

Everything Else

35) National: What does it take to be a commercial astronaut? The FAA just changed its requirements. “But it looks like the FAA will be getting the last word in determining whom among the crews could be deemed commercial astronauts. Under the new FAA Commercial Space Astronaut Wings Program, launch crewmembers must now ‘demonstrate activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.’”

Photo by Ben Schumin.