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DJC OP-ED: Making the most of a trip to Washington, D.C.

DJC OP-ED: Making the most of a trip to Washington, D.C.

Mike Salsgiver
Executive Director, AGC Oregon-Columbia Chapter

This article was published by the DJC on October 17, 2017 and can be viewed here.

DJC 100 Year Anniversary LogoEach fall, Associated General Contractors Oregon-Columbia chapter officers and I travel to Washington, D.C., for the AGC National Chapter Leadership Conference. The NCLC is a gathering of AGC leadership from around the nation, jammed with information and speakers from government and the national political scene. A very busy four days ends with visits to Capitol Hill to meet with members of our congressional delegations.

With the 2016 elections, America’s political pendulum has continued its wild swings back and forth. The left-leaning policy, political and regulatory climate we’ve faced for the past eight years has suddenly lurched to the right. While the rollback of some Obama-era policies sends a much more business-friendly message, the first 10 months of the Trump administration have been uneven and erratic.

Even with these changes and shifts in direction, AGC continues to be focused at the federal level on key issues that can or do affect the commercial construction industry.

When my officers and I made our rounds on Capitol Hill, meeting with each member of the Oregon congressional delegation, we discussed a number of issues. They included:

Long-term public infrastructure investments

According to a 2007 inventory completed by the former Oregon Business Development Department (now Business Oregon), Oregon is facing over $20 billion in public infrastructure needs. The state’s transportation system gets the bulk of the attention from interest groups and politicians. But “public infrastructure” also includes public buildings, schools, communications systems, water and sewer systems, and port, aviation and maritime facilities.

In addition to looking for a long-term funding strategy for our roads, highways and bridges, we must also find a way to pay for improvements to the rest of the public infrastructure under federal and state control.

There are a number of legislative concepts being drafted and discussed, but there is no clear consensus on how to address this challenge. Further, although Donald Trump campaigned on infrastructure investments as a central area of focus, the president has managed to eclipse his own “infrastructure week” this past June by firing former FBI Director James Comey. Later in the summer, following a steady stream of business leaders distancing themselves from the president over the events in Charlottesville, the president decided to shut down his Infrastructure Advisory Council.

Clearly, there is much to do to get the nation’s infrastructure plans on track.

Workforce development

The commercial construction industry is in an almost white-hot recovery. As I travel around the state to visit with AGC’s members, I hear about two major problems: finding qualified subcontractors to perform project work, and finding skilled construction workers who can actually do the work.

In 2016, Oregon voters passed Measure 98 by a resounding 2–1 margin. This measure has led to a massive infusion of state dollars to support reinstatement of vocational education and continuing technical education in our public schools. The Oregon Legislature, with the support of Gov. Kate Brown, adopted a budget that will direct $160 million into programs to improve graduation rates, reduce the number of students dropping out of school, and to reinstate programs to provide vocational education for students not interested in going through four-year institutions.

At the federal level, there are a number of programs designed to support workforce development. The primary federal workforce program is the Carl Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act, which was established by Congress in 1984. Another is the Workforce Innovation Fund. These and other programs have provided hundreds of millions of federal dollars over the past 30-plus years to support building the future workforce.

Industries in need of workforce development (construction and manufacturing to name just two) face some challenges in the new administration. While controlling government spending is also an AGC priority because of its importance to our long-term economic strength, some targeted investments such as workforce development programs are also important to the nation’s economic future.

The president’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposes a reduction of $3.856 billion out of a 2017 workforce budget of $10.005 billion – a 38.54 percent reduction. While Congress is likely to restore some of this, AGC and other industry advocates will need to closely evaluate the impact of the proposed reductions to make sure federal investments in our future workforce don’t decrease right at the time we need them the most.

Natural disaster recovery

The summer of 2017 will likely be seen by future generations as one of the most destructive in recent memory. Multiple hurricanes in the east, the Caribbean and the Gulf Coast, combined with massive forest fires affecting millions of acres in the West will require funding and recovery assistance for many years – if not decades – to come.

In Oregon alone, hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland burned in Southern and Central Oregon, and in the Columbia River Gorge. AGC’s leadership didn’t address the debate over federal forest resource management that has lasted for several decades. That debate, however, continues to highlight the fact that mere preservation and the lack of active forest management creates a severe vulnerability of our forests to natural events such as fires.

AGC’s leaders did tell the delegation that our members are standing ready to help reconstruction of such Oregon landmarks as the Oneonta Tunnel on the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Visits to Capitol Hill are always fast-paced, happen in compressed amounts of time, and require an enormous amount of homework. This year’s conversations were among the most constructive and substantive in many years.

But the real work is just starting, and the industry will need to remain focused and engaged in a rapidly-changing and contentious climate for the foreseeable future.

Mike Salsgiver is the executive director of Associated General Contractors’ Oregon-Columbia chapter. Contact him at 503-685-8305 or mikes@agc-oregon.org.

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