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‘The mother lode’: Cities and counties across America clamor for slice of new infrastructure funds

Municipalities are hiring lobbyists to secure funding even as the Biden administration tries to make the money more accessible

Mitch Landrieu, the White House infrastructure implementation coordinator, said the Biden administration wants to help underserved communities obtain infrastructure funding. “We recognize and see people that have not been recognized and seen for a long time by their government, and we know where they are,” Landrieu said. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Over the past decade, the small coastal city of Largo, Fla., has borrowed tens of millions of dollars from the state, partly to build piecemeal protections against rising sea waters that threaten flooding and major damage to the community, which sits squarely between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay.

It hasn’t been enough: A recent budget enumerated nearly $77 million in unfunded projects, including protecting an industrial site from hurricane damage and paving with materials that better absorb water.

And so last year, as members of Congress debated a historic infrastructure bill that would fund hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of new spending on roads, bridges, pipes, ports and Internet connections across the country, Largo officials did something they had never done before: They hired lobbyists in Washington to advocate on their behalf.

“I know the term ‘lobbyist’ does not have a real good ring to it,” said Jamie Robinson, a Largo city commissioner. “But I think done strategically, it’s a great opportunity for us.”

Across the country, from the Tampa Bay area to rural California, municipalities are gearing up to vie for billions of dollars that will be handed out by the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency and other parts of the federal government.

The money dwarfs past federal spending on infrastructure and represents a unique opportunity for cities, counties and states to scramble for influence in the nation’s capital, where years of clamoring for infrastructure spending have finally yielded a windfall.

On Monday, the White House published a 465-page guidebook that explains the different pots of money available to communities, along with a data file meant to allow applicants to quickly learn about available programs by searching by name, funding amount, geographic area, agency or other fields.

“The whole point is you should not have to hire a lobbyist to access your government,” Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans who was tapped by President Biden to oversee infrastructure spending, said in an interview Sunday. “This book makes a really strenuous effort to make sure that people that don’t have access can actually get it because now they have knowledge.”

Still, a broad range of communities have decided that they are better off hiring help to make their case. Largo tapped Ballard Partners, a firm with deep Florida roots that built up its Washington practice during the Trump years and has added staff with Democratic ties in the Biden era. Largo is paying Ballard $180,000 for a three-year contract, according to bid documents. The firm registered to represent Largo just two days after Biden signed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package into law in mid-November, according to lobbying records.

“You can never say never, but the reality probably is that this is the mother lode of funding for probably the next seven, eight, nine, 10 years,” said Richard Spees, a lobbyist at Akerman LLP, a firm hired by Alameda, Calif., and Orlando, among other cities. “So you miss the boat on this one, you’re out.”

The new federal spending also represents a boon for Washington’s lobbyists: Many municipalities have concluded that to have the best chance at the funds, they need outside expertise to help them tailor their applications and gather support from local lawmakers.

“We’ve never seen spending packages like this before, and so that in and of itself creates a natural demand,” said Ana Cruz, a lobbyist at Ballard Partners who is advocating for Largo.

More than 1,000 municipal entities spent some $49.9 million on federal lobbyists in the last half of 2021 — the months when the infrastructure bill was nearing passage and directly afterward — according to data tracked by OpenSecrets. That’s about 7 percent higher than the $46.7 million that municipal entities spent in the same period of 2020, when cities were desperate for economic relief from the havoc caused by the pandemic. But that 2021 number may understate the increased demand for lobbyists, because contracts signed near the end of the year, like Largo’s with Ballard, are not reflected in the dollar figure.

And federal agencies have just barely started the work of getting the money out the door, with some grant applications expected to open in the coming weeks. Lobbying by cities and towns is expected to be just as intense at the state level, because much of the new funds will be allocated to state governments to dole out.

“There’s more money than there’s ever been for infrastructure,” said Susan H. Lent, a lobbyist and lawyer at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. Lent said she has been fielding inquiries from municipalities and companies recently, many of them wondering about how to apply for the numerous grant, loan and tax credit programs in the bill.

“We’re getting a lot of questions and a lot of interest. ‘What is this program? What are the strings attached?’ There is a lot interest from folks seeing this law and wondering what the opportunities are,” she said.

More than 160 of the over 1,000 municipal entities that hired federal lobbyists last year had not hired them in 2020, according to the OpenSecrets data, and the number of municipal entities with federal lobbyists was more than in any year since 2012.

“Municipal entities have always had an interest in how billions of dollars doled out by Congress get spent, but especially so with Biden’s focus on infrastructure,” said Dan Auble, an OpenSecrets senior researcher.

One big reason that cities are scrambling to secure the cash: Even though the bipartisan law means the federal government will be spending more than it has on infrastructure in decades, it still won’t be nearly enough to cover everything that needs repairing or rebuilding. A 2021 estimate by the American Society of Civil Engineers found a 10-year infrastructure investment gap of $2.6 trillion. That means there will be far more viable projects across the country than funding for them all.

“The need is huge, and it’s larger than it should be, frankly, because we’ve had such a period of all bark and no bite, a lot of people talking infrastructure and not doing much about it,” said Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), the leader of a top spending panel in the House focused on transportation and infrastructure.

The mainstay is the roughly $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law, which is setting in motion what is likely to be a years-long effort to parcel out the money and bring long-stalled public-works projects to fruition.

But that is not the only money at stake. Democrats are still debating the fate of their roughly $2 trillion Build Back Better bill, which includes proposals for other infrastructure improvements in areas such as climate change. And lawmakers could set aside additional sums for infrastructure spending as part of their discussions to fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year. If they can reach a long-term deal — with a Feb. 18 funding deadline fast approaching — it could include roughly $10 billion in earmarks, many of which would encompass infrastructure

“There is going to be more money available, and it is going to be competitive,” Price said. “And so however they can manage it, states, localities [and] eligible applicants are going to have to pursue that money — and they will need to pay some attention to making the case effectively.”

Sensing an opportunity, city leaders in Annapolis, Md., tasked their trio of Washington lobbyists last year to focus their time and attention on bringing some of the new federal funds back home.

The coastal city has long struggled with flooding in its historical district, as rising tides from the nearby Chesapeake Bay spill over from the docks into the tourist-heavy areas not far from the Maryland State House. But the problem has grown “persistently worse” in recent years as a result of climate change, said David Jarrell, the city manager, who said that Annapolis on its own has “not been able to afford the proper permanent measures” to address the problem.

To cover the estimated $60 million price tag of new sea walls, drainage systems and other improvements, Jarrell said, the city is hoping to capture a grant or other assistance from the federal infrastructure law.

Annapolis already has looked to existing state and federal funds to pay for parts of the project. But Jarrell said those sources have provided only “dribbles and drabbles.”

“We see this infrastructure bill as very fortuitous for us to try to close the gap,” he said.

On the opposite side of the country, Patrick Blacklock detected a similar opportunity afoot. The leader of the Rural County Representatives of California, a trade group representing 38 such governments, said that his organization had picked up the pace on its advocacy as the “growing backlog for infrastructure projects seemingly has grown exponentially.”

There are needs to upgrade water systems, improve sewage and draining, and deliver high-speed Internet access to parts of the state that still lack affordable, viable options. So the group has tasked its small collection of Washington lobbyists to ensure that its members, too, can snag a piece of the generous federal pie.

“We now have the rare opportunity to obtain some funding,” Blacklock said earlier this month.

Already, Blacklock said, the group has held conversations with the Department of Transportation on the issue of electric vehicles — hoping to make sure that a new push to install charging stations nationwide doesn’t leave counties behind. In taking a more active posture, he said, the rural counties are seeking to remedy what they view as a “competitive disadvantage” against larger cities and counties more readily equipped to capture Washington’s attention — and cash.

“The urban communities are just farther ahead in this world of EV infrastructure,” he said. “In that paradigm, these moneys will flow straight past the rural communities, and not because they don’t want or need it, but because they don’t have the resources to grab it.”

Lobbyists said in interviews that while it is still early in the funding process, they are busy helping their municipal clients parse dense legislative text and regulatory notices to determine which of their infrastructure needs may fit well with the priorities of Congress and the Biden administration. Biden officials, for instance, have signaled that they will look more favorably on projects that incorporate climate resiliency and equity for marginalized communities, several lobbyists said.

“You’re beginning to see an emphasis on climate change and equity and investment in neighborhoods that maybe haven’t been invested in previously,” said Jeffrey Brooks, a partner at Adams and Reese in D.C., who is representing a swath of municipalities in Alabama and Louisiana.

In December, EPA Administrator Michael Regan wrote to governors to urge them to push grants toward “disadvantaged communities” and said the agency would provide technical assistance to help those communities apply for funds.

“Rather than a business as usual approach, we are partnering with governors to truly direct resources to the communities that need them the most,” Regan said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Finally we are offering assistance to communities to ensure they can participate effectively in the process.”

Once municipalities identify projects for which they want to obtain grants, well-connected lobbyists can help them by mustering support from local members of Congress, as well as nearby towns and cities, to demonstrate the broad backing of a potential project.

That help and expertise often comes at a cost of $10,000 or more per month, which can stretch even moderately well-off municipal budgets.

“A majority of cities in America, they would find a challenge in hiring D.C. lobbyists,” said Clarence Anthony, chief executive of the National League of Cities, which positions itself as a Washington advocate for small and large communities. He urged federal agencies to provide technical assistance to applicants, as well as simplified applications for the more modest grants for which smaller communities are likely to apply.

A Department of Transportation spokeswoman said the agency plans to provide technical assistance and webinars targeted for rural, tribal and disadvantaged communities, as well as “debriefs” for unsuccessful grant applicants so they can improve their submissions.

“We recognize and see people that have not been recognized and seen for a long time by their government, and we know where they are,” Landrieu said, pointing specifically to coal country, the Black Belt region of the South and tribal communities as places that have been overlooked in the past but could benefit from the new funding. “We understand that they have capacity problems, which is why we want to find a way to give them a road map.”

Cities that have hired lobbyists view it as an investment that could pay back many times over. Houston has repeatedly benefited from large transportation programs after hiring Akin Gump, one of D.C.’s best-known lobbying firms, beginning in 2004. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) recently called for a “new paradigm” — a shift away from the region’s heavy reliance on highways, which will require additional funding for pedestrian, bicycle and rail infrastructure.

“You cannot show up with a knife to a gunfight,” said Bill Kelly, Houston’s director of government relations. “You really have to show up with your story straight, with your ask straight, with your strategy straight.”

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