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Building without going in the hole
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Building without going in the hole

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The author is governor of Nebraska.

Nebraska is the least indebted state in the nation because our state government, like our people, lives within its means. We take a common sense approach to finances. We pay as we go for new projects instead of taking on debt. This approach has helped us to build high-quality infrastructure and to grow Nebraska without mortgaging our future.

Last week, President Biden unveiled his administration’s new $2.3 trillion spending plan. It’s clear the president doesn’t share Nebraskans’ approach to managing finances. In 2020, the federal government had its largest budget deficit since World War II. In the midst of a historic pandemic, emergency spending made sense, but as we emerge from the pandemic a return to normalcy must include a return to fiscal discipline.

The Congressional Budget Office monitors the condition of our nation’s finances. In December, the CBO reported that publicly held federal debt is on pace to reach the highest level in U.S. history by 2023. “The growing debt burden ... raises borrowing costs, slowing the growth of the economy and national income, and it increases the risk of a fiscal crisis,” the CBO warned.

The president is trying to sell his costly plan as an investment. In Nebraska, we don’t say it’s an “investment” when someone maxes out their credit cards. We call it what it is: irresponsible. In an effort to sell the public on such a big jump in spending, the president is touting his plan as a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity. In reality, it’s a recipe for multi-generational indebtedness. And while the president has called this his infrastructure plan, only about 5% of this spending involves roads and bridges. If the president gets his way, our kids and grandkids will be paying the bill for generations to come.

Here in Nebraska, we’ve shown how to build reliable infrastructure without going into debt. We’ve used the Build Nebraska Act of 2011 and the Transportation Innovation Act of 2016 to make progress in completing expressways and repairing bridges around the state. For example, these funds are helping to build the Fremont Southeast Beltway and the long-planned Lincoln South Beltway. In March, crews began construction on US-385 northeast of Bayard. The project, funded through the BNA, will build 14 miles of divided, four-lane highway as part of the Heartland Expressway. The widening of US-275 between Fremont and Norfolk also will utilize these programs.

In January, the Nebraska Department of Transportation announced its fifth round of funding through the County Bridge Map Program (CBMP). Created as part of the TIA, the program provides counties with 55% of eligible bridge construction costs, with counties providing a 45% match. Since its inception, the CBMP has helped to repair or replace more than 300 bridges in 64 counties.

While the Legislature has authorized funds to invest in our roads and bridges, NDOT has been making the most of taxpayer dollars by making process improvements. For example, in 2018, NDOT entered into a partnership with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to begin the process of assuming responsibility for environmental reviews of federally funded highway projects. This can enable NDOT to deliver projects more quickly while still ensuring proper care of our lands and wildlife.

In addition to state-level projects, we’ve also helped cities and counties invest in their infrastructure. The state of Nebraska’s Federal Funds Purchase Program has helped cut red tape for local governments for several years. The program allows the state to swap the counties’ and first-class cities’ share of federal dollars for state dollars. Those state dollars allow local agencies to tailor projects to better meet their local needs without navigating the bureaucratic federal regulatory framework.

Elected officials have a duty to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. In Nebraska, we’ve built excellent infrastructure without going into debt.

pete.ricketts@nebraska.gov

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