How red states are raking in Biden’s infrastructure dough

How red states are raking in Biden’s infrastructure dough
Photo by Gregory Hayes on Unsplash
man standing on garden during daytime

When President Joe Biden signed his $1.2-trillion infrastructure bill in early November, two California Democrats — Vice President Kamala Harris and Sen. Dianne Feinstein — stood grinning beside him. Just the day before Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who represents most of San Francisco, looked ecstatic as the chamber she leads passed Biden’s infrastructure bill.

Gov. Gavin Newsom put out a list of the dozens of projects celebrating $44.5 billion worth of federal funds coming to the Golden State over five years.

Good as all that seems on the surface, examine the when the funded projects on a per person basis — the only basis that makes any sense — and Californians are getting a lousy deal. So are residents of New York, New Jersey, Texas and some other states.

We have a federal spending system maximizing the greatest good for the smallest number, not the greatest good for the greatest number.

So which states’ leaders should be smiling? Those with the fewest people.

Our federal government will spend less than $1,250 per Californian on infrastructure over the next five years. Texas will get slightly less while New York and New Jersey can expect just a few hundred more per person than California.

Alaska Wins

Our least populous state, Wyoming, will get four times as much per person as California, about $4,475 per resident, none of which will be spent on public transit. But even the Cowboy State pales next to Alaska. The Last Frontier state will receive $6,700 per resident.

How Much Each States Get Back for Each Federal Tax Dollar paid as calculated by the Rockefeller Institute on GovernmentHow Much Each States Get Back for Each Federal Tax Dollar paid as calculated by the Rockefeller Institute on Government

Think about it this way: Every Monday Californians each get a federal benefit to improve infrastructure. That’s it for the week. But people in Alaska will get the same size benefit on Monday followed by another on Tuesday and then Wednesday and on through Saturday.

These gross disparities are emblematic of how federal spending tends to short big and often blue states like California while showering money on states like Wyoming and Alaska with few people who elect politicians who often vote against infrastructure spending.

Here’s a stark indication of just how much small states with delegations benefit by paying attention to the dollars their constituents send to Washington and how much they get back, courtesy of the Rockefeller Institute of Government and its nifty map on tax dollars flows. It shows that eight states give while 42 take.

For each dollar Californians send to Uncle Sam, they get back in federal spending of all kinds almost 99 cents.

Kentucky Rakes It In

In Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky, however, each dollar sent to Uncle Sam returns $2.89 in federal spending. McConnell, of course, would never call that welfare for the Blue Grass state.

The formulas Congress has put in place favor lightly populated states over heavily populated ones, but Capitol Hill voting patterns are not consistent on that.

Alaska’s two senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan voted for the Biden bill as did the state’s sole congressman, Rep. Don Young. Voting against it were Wyoming Senators John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis along with Rep. Liz Cheney, that state’s only congressperson. All six are Republicans.

A census study last March found California’s cities have some of the country’s longest commutes. Indeed, in the morning a crush of cars can be seen filling roads from Central Valley towns like Manteca for the entire 80 miles of freeway to the Bay Area with its high-paying jobs, this slow-moving traffic jam reversing in the late afternoon.

Yet California had the most congested urban highways and most daily interstate traffic nationwide, according to an analysis last June by a nonprofit research group funded by roadbuilders, unions and insurance companies. Relieving such congestion is a major reason that about 80% of California’s infrastructure money will go to mass transit, compared to zero in Wyoming.

Commuters Lose

States where people don’t spend hours commuting on Interstates—the Dakotas, Vermont, West Virginia—will get more than double Californians’ share of the Biden bill money. Biden lost all of those states except Vermont.

So even with California sending to Washington the vice president, speaker and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, why couldn’t it get as good a deal as deep red Arkansas, which gets $1.64 back from Washington each dollar it sends in?

Partisan politics don’t explain this. Population politics do.

California’s scanty share reveals the state’s, not its leaders’, impotence in a federal system that discounts its numbers and needs.

The Constitution’s allotment of two senators per state amplifies the negotiating power of small states over large ones.

The Senate’s structure means one Wyomingite has as much power as 67 Californians.

The 164 million Americans who live in the 10 largest states have as many senators among them as the 7.9 million Americans who live in the ten least populous states.

18th Century Policy

California’s bad deal isn’t an accident. It’s the symptom of this 18th Century system that was designed, in part, to protect slavery.

The funding formulas controlling this $1.2 trillion have been shaped by politicians from small states. They’ve stuck to their knitting for decades, generations even. Over time, spending rules containing “small-state minimums” have guaranteed these states disproportionate-to-population shares of federal spending on transportation, education and health.

It’s a fact documented by decades of political science research.

The result? An inversion of logical policymaking: we have a federal spending system maximizing the greatest good for the smallest number, not the greatest good for the greatest number.

The state with the fewest people, Wyoming, got the biggest benefit while the state with the most people, California, got the smallest.

Overall, it’s the states that tend to vote Republican and whose delegations typically oppose improvements such as infrastructure spending, along with increased spending on education and health, that get disproportionately large slices of the federal spending pie. This makes no sense.

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