Where Do Job Programs Stand in the Face of Potential Labor Department Cuts?

On Tuesday, June 27, 2017, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (Labor/H) held a hearing at which the current Labor secretary, R. Alexander Acosta, testified on the president’s budget and other matters.

While the conversation often strayed in various directions, including worker safety, foreign workers, public safety, and worker layoffs, it ultimately returned to jobs, and the clear belief by most members of the subcommittee that putting Americans to work requires a robust and effective workforce development system. For members of the subcommittee it did not matter whether these unemployed or underemployed workers were coal miners from West Virginia, young black men from Chicago, or workers who lost their jobs because of outsourcing. Ultimately, the conversation always came back to the need for and the importance of jobs, job training and job placement programs.

Chairman Roy Blunt (R-MO) opened the hearing by bemoaning the fact that the administration was proposing to cut the Labor Department’s budget by $2.3 billion or 20 percent. He added that while he supports efforts to reduce federal expenditures overall, he wondered aloud whether these Labor Department cuts make sense. If adopted the president’s budget would cut 40 percent of the Labor Department’s workforce development budget. In turn, that would mean that 40 percent of state funding for job training and placement services would vanish, and place individuals and their families at risk for unemployment and a significant loss of income.

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the ranking member, echoed Chairman Blunt’s concerns, but added this criticism (and I paraphrase):

The president’s budget request is deeply harmful. It will make it extremely difficult to continue to connect workers to jobs – which is, of course, the central mission of the Department of Labor. Our ability to keep good jobs in America will only be realized by tapping into the full potential of our workers. This budget disregards the bipartisan Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which Republicans and Democrats worked on to ensure an effective federal, state, and local job training system. In fact, nine million of the 20 million who are served by this program will be denied training and connections to the workplace. We need robust investments that help workers and state and local officials grow our economy and get to work, and not the deep cuts proposed by the administration.

Secretary Acosta did not shy away from the debate. In the face of significant criticism from senators on both sides of the aisle, Acosta made clear that the president’s vision for America is “good and safe jobs for all Americans.” He noted that while unemployment is very low – about 4.3 percent – some six million jobs remain unfilled. He went on to say that we have to train Americans to fill those jobs if we are to remain a strong and vibrant nation, and often the best way to train people for these jobs is through apprenticeship programs.

“The answer, according to the president,” Acosta said, “is to expand apprenticeships. High quality apprenticeships ensure that workers have the appropriate skills and ensure that they can earn a decent income.” He pointed out that post apprenticeship starting salaries can top $60,000. “That’s more than the average starting salary for a college graduate,” he added.

When queried about the cuts to existing programs, Acosta said there are many programs – some that are duplicative, and some that have not proven their value – that need to be eliminated, consolidated, or changed. “The department is using rigorous standards to determine what works and what does not, and those standards will form the basis for our judgments about which programs should continue and which should not, which should be funded and which should not.”

Despite the back and forth, an interesting admission emerged at the end from the secretary. Acosta said that the president’s budget is only a starting point, and that the administration and he are looking forward to working with Congress to hammer out an appropriate budget for the Labor Department. Where that will lead remains to be seen.

Want America to Be ‘Great’ Again? Pay For It – By Pat Jones, IBTTA

The following article, Want America to be Great Again? Pay for It, by Pat Jones was originally published as a guest editorial in the April 18 issue of Time magazine. Pat Jones is the CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel, and Turnpike Association (IBTTA), an organization that represents tolling agencies from around the nation and world. His organization has been at the forefront of advocating for increased resources to maintain our roads, bridges and tunnels, and other infrastructure. This blog argues for a coherent, thoughtful transportation policy that provides the necessary funds to ensure that America’s roads and bridges, and other infrastructure, are properly maintained. Most recently, Mr. Jones was a general session speaker at NARC’s  2017 National Conference of Regions.

Elon Musk recently announced that he is fed up with traffic in Los Angeles and will soon begin boring a tunnel under the city to relieve congestion. As a billionaire and innovator, Musk has the resources to make something like this happen. But even if he bores his tunnel, where does that leave the rest of the country with its congested highways, crumbling bridges, aging water systems and fragile power grid? One big push in L.A. doesn’t solve the problems of an entire country struggling under the burden of billions of dollars in deferred maintenance. We need a national vision to pay for and revitalize our infrastructure for all Americans.

For decades, my association (IBTTA) and many others have urged Congress and the states to make much bigger investments in our vital infrastructure. But we are still far behind where we would like to be. The problem is us. We say we want better roads and safer drinking water. But year after year, we refuse to come up with the money to make the big improvements that we need. Yes, some states and local governments have taken it upon themselves to raise revenue. But that isn’t enough to meet all our infrastructure needs.

But there is hope. President Donald Trump has shined a bright light on infrastructure. During the campaign, his inaugural address – and most recently, his Joint Address to Congress – he emphasized his commitment to rebuild roads, bridges and schools. Last October, his advisors published a paper that proposed $1 trillion in new infrastructure investment over ten years by offering tax credits to private investors. And recently, Senate Democrats introduced their own $1 trillion plan to repair crumbling roads, rebuild schools and do more while creating over 15 million new jobs.

As hopeful as these proposals are, there is a big problem: They are heavy on vision and light on details, specifically how to pay for them. Paying for a grand plan is always the sticking point. Those who advance these proposals don’t want to talk about “pay-fors” until the last minute, because they want to limit the opportunity of their adversaries to oppose them. So, we get the big vision first in the light of day, and the messy sausage-making of pay-fors in the dead of night.

And who’s to blame for this? The American people. It may seem that Congress and the President are pursuing wicked ends through clandestine means when they wrap up a deal with pay-fors at the eleventh hour. But they are simply following our lead.

Consider this reader comment in response to a recent newspaper article describing Americans’ reluctance to pay user fees to rebuild infrastructure. The reader said, “Americans want first class roads but don’t want to pay for them. Well, folks, nothing is free. No one will provide these things without taxes or user fees.”

In response to this attitude, Congress and the President have twisted themselves into unnatural shapes to say to voters, “Yes, we’re going to rebuild your infrastructure,” and “No, we’re not going to raise taxes or fees to do it (well, maybe just a little).”

This Harry Houdini act must end. We can’t rebuild our infrastructure if our elected leaders are forced to carry out our will wrapped in a straitjacket and submerged in a glass coffin rapidly filling with water. This tableau makes for great theater but lousy public policy.

Having a grand infrastructure proposal without a means to pay for it doesn’t solve the problem. It merely names the problem and a happy end state, without any of the hard work needed to get to the end. We need to be honest with each other and make sacrifices now to ensure a better future. Sacrifice in this case means money, with Americans paying more than they pay today in exchange for better infrastructure.

It’s time to treat the American people like adults and explain the need for bigger investment in the form of taxes and user fees. Adults understand that there is no free lunch and there are no free roads. Let’s have an honest conversation that starts like this: We are going to build and maintain the finest infrastructure in the world and we, the American people, are going to pay for it.