Obama Talks Tough on Taxes -- With an Eye on Ohio-Ky. Bridge

By Alexis Simendinger - September 20, 2011

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“There are a lot of ways to do it,” Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told reporters at the White House. He was asked if the president has in mind a version of the existing alternative minimum tax, which was originally created to be sure wealthy individuals pay some tax even after qualifying for tax deductions and exclusions. The Treasury secretary deflected the question.

Geithner said the administration is preparing yet another plan to present to lawmakers before the end of the year -- proposals to achieve corporate tax reform. But the proposals won’t go before the super committee until the climate for action on revenue reforms seems auspicious, Geithner added at the briefing. Translation: Corporations eager to achieve some tax relief should pressure Republicans to tackle comprehensive “tax reform” as part of the deficit-debt equation.

The campaign theme woven throughout Obama’s newest deficit plan and the job-creation proposals he unveiled Sept. 8 is not new for a Democratic incumbent seeking a second term in a period of divided government. Obama has vowed during a rocky economy to protect the middle class and the elderly from what he believes are wrong-headed policies endorsed by the opposing party. Republicans, the president said, want to gut federal safety nets and help their upper-income and business friends.

“I will not support any plan that puts all the burden for closing our deficit on ordinary Americans,” the president said. “And I will veto any bill that changes benefits for those who rely on Medicare but does not raise serious revenues by asking the wealthiest Americans or biggest corporations to pay their fair share. We are not going to have a one-sided deal that hurts the folks who are most vulnerable.”

Conservatives scoffed at the president’s remarks Monday.

"Unfortunately, the president has not made a serious contribution to [the super committee] work today," House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement. “This administration’s insistence on raising taxes on job creators and its reluctance to take the steps necessary to strengthen our entitlement programs are the reasons the president and I were not able to reach an agreement previously, and it is evident today that these barriers remain."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement within minutes of Obama’s Rose Garden event: “Veto threats, a massive tax hike, phantom savings, and punting on entitlement reform is not a recipe for economic or job growth -- or even meaningful deficit reduction. The good news is that the Joint Committee is taking this issue far more seriously than the White House.”

On Thursday, Obama will hold an event at an Ohio bridge that stretches into Kentucky, McConnell’s home state. The president is scheduled to fly to Cincinnati, Boehner’s district, to describe how the infrastructure spending contained in his proposed $447 billion jobs plan could help revamp the obsolete Brent Spence Bridge, which is owned by Kentucky.

The bridge metaphor in American politics has a lively history -- recall President Clinton’s bridge to the 21st Century, or Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere” -- and at first glance, Obama’s attention to a neglected link between Ohio and Kentucky looks like an invitation to Republican colleagues to link up and create construction and building-trade jobs. But in this case, the Brent Spence Bridge will serve as a threat. Obama’s message is that voters will judge which politicians are working to better their communities, and which are more interested in themselves.

Obama is correct that the bridge project is in dire need of resources. The bridge is structurally sound, but people whose vehicles have broken down while crossing it have been killed. In the 1980s, the aging span’s six lanes were converted to eight by incorporating the shoulders. Traffic has outgrown the structure, as well as about eight miles of nearby highway, which is part of the overall project. Planning studies were begun in the 1990s to fix the link between two states, and engineering studies began in 2005. The engineering and environmental studies continue.

The $2.3 billion bridge and highway construction project has “no sources of funding identified” once the plans are complete, Stefan Spinosa, the project manager for the Ohio Department of Transportation, told RCP. Ohio has about $1.5 billion in transportation projects budgeted annually, and its share of the federal fuel tax used for highways is about $900 million. “We cannot fund this without it impacting every other project in the state,” Spinosa said. The same holds true for Kentucky.

The problem with using the Brent Spence Bridge as a backdrop for near-term job creation is that even if new federal resources flowed to Ohio and Kentucky, construction and building-trade jobs would not be created immediately. The earliest that real construction could get under way is 2015, under current plans. If accelerated with the hiring of a design-build contractor, Ohio’s part of the project could possibly get started in late 2012, or early in 2013, Spinosa said.

That’s about the time that Boehner and McConnell hope Obama will be packed up and heading back to Illinois, and the Senate joins the House under GOP control. In that regard, the speaker and the minority leader are seeing a different sort of bridge. 

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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