The Trump administration’s talk of a major infrastructure bill should not only look at modernizing the nation’s highways and broadband, but it also needs to lay a new foundation for water infrastructure, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said Wednesday.
The Denver Democrat touched on a variety of issues during a luncheon speech at the Colorado Water Congress summer conference in Steamboat Springs. He was scheduled to host a town hall in Steamboat later in the afternoon, the most recent in a series of a 17 public meetings around Colorado that Bennet has convened during the congressional August recess.
“We need to make sure our water systems gets just as much attention as highways and broadband,” Bennet told the audience of more than 300.
He explained that members of Congress are looking for ways to bring the public and private sectors together and inject new capital into rural water projects. He is already talking to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, local banks and investment companies to think that through. He asked the audience, which includes virtually every major water official in the state, to help figure out how to develop ideas to finance projects in ways that he said should make sense.
Bennet has already had a fair amount of success in finding federal funding for Colorado water. In the past few years, collaborating with other members of Colorado’s congressional delegation, Bennet said the state has won funding from the Department of Agriculture through the 2014 farm bill for water projects. That brought in about $26 million for projects impacting the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers, the new Chimney Hollow Reservoir west of Loveland and other projects across the state.
Bennet also said he has invited the new secretary of agriculture, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, to visit Colorado to see the condition of the state’s national forests. “If you live downstream of Colorado,” and Bennet said millions of people in 18 states do, “you should care about the health of our forests.”
“We’ve done a lot of work together on water and climate,” Bennet said. “The country is looking for leadership in a way that isn’t partisan, and Colorado is a perfect leader to meet that challenge.”
In a question and answer session following his remarks, audience members were just as interested in seeing what Bennet can do to address Washington gridlock as they were on climate change and water issues.
“I spent my whole first term trying to demonstrate to the people of Colorado that their government could still work, at a time when we thought it was pretty dysfunctional,” he said.
Few senators were going home to talk about what they accomplished with members of the other party, he said, preferring to spend time lambasting the other side.
Bennet pointed to several instances in which he worked with Republican senators during his first term, including as a member of the so-called “Gang of eight,” a group of four Democratic and four Republican senators that crafted immigration reform legislation. The measure overwhelmingly passed the U.S. Senate in 2013 but never came up for a vote in the House.
He also noted more successful efforts to speed up timelines for drug approvals with the Food and Drug Administration, legislation developed with Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina; and his work on the Every Student Succeeds Act, along with Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
But the 2016 election has produced a new level of dysfunction, he indicated. “Now it’s a little bit different – we have the dysfunction we’ve had before, and the budget issues from before. The priorities of Washington are decoupled from the priorities of Colorado” and the rest of the country. He said he could not have ever imagined that Trump “would be the remedy for that gap.”
Today, not only does Washington still operate in dysfunction, but that is now overlaid with a rejection of traditional American values, Bennet said. “When I think of President Trump, I do not think about the people in my state who are conservative. I don’t see their agenda in what he’s doing.”
Bennet said the mission of all Americans today must be to stand up for the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, checks and balances in government, and for the importance of the free press. And “we have to hold people in my job to a much higher standard. If we held our members of Congress to the same standards as county commissioners, this nonsense would be over in a minute.”
There’s a fundamental concern about where the nation is headed, and “it’s all of our job to figure out how to fix it,” Bennet concluded.