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In Florida, Obama pitches new ways to attract private investment for public-works projects

Speaking briefly at PortMiami on Friday afternoon, President Barack Obama proposed new ways for governments to secure private dollars for big-ticket highway, bridge and other public works projects to boost the economy and create new construction jobs.

Among the president's proposals will be raising caps on certain state and local bonds to lower financing costs and make them available for more types of projects; exempting foreign pension funds from taxes when they want to invest in U.S. infrastructure, as is already done for American pension funds, and spending an additional $4 billion for two programs that provide loans and grants to public-works projects — all intended to gin up private investment for the upgrades, according to a senior White House official who spoke on background before Obama's announcement.

Said Obama at Port Miami: "No workers were hammered harder by the recession than construction workers."

In his State of the Union address last month, Obama made public-works spending a crucial portion of his economic agenda for the year, proposing a program that would spend $40 billion in public money on needed fixes to the country's aging roads and bridges. Republicans in Congress, however, have opposed new spending that grows the deficit and is not paid for by tax cuts or other budget savings.

A smaller part of the plan, which the administration calls the "Rebuild America Partnership," centers on drawing private investment. That was Obama's focus Friday, when he talked about renewing a proposal from his first term to create a $10 billion national infrastructure bank. All the proposals would require congressional approval.

Obama's economic plan has been somewhat lost in the shuffle since the State of the Union, with Washington's attention centered on gun-control, immigration and automatic federal budget cuts known as the sequester. The White House, which said it could not estimate how many jobs the president's proposals would create because that would depend on the interest of private investors. It also did not release details on how much Obama's latest plan would cost. That information will be included in the president's budget, which will be released in April, the White House official said.

Friday was Obama's first visit to South Florida since being elected to a second term last November. He was joined by Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Frederica Wilson and Joe Garcia, all of whom are Democrats. Other local politicians included Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado.

As his stage, Obama used the seaport, a major economic engine which is undergoing significant projects, including a $1 billion tunnel under Biscayne Bay to ease cargo truck traffic on roads and a planned $180 million port dredging to accommodate larger vessels after the widening of the Panama Canal. PortMiami Director has said the dredging will create some 33,000 direct and indirect new jobs.

But Miami is also a fitting location for the president's speech for other projects that won't be captured by television cameras. Miami-Dade County has drawn up a $1.5 billion plan to repair its antiquated, spill-plagued water-and-sewer system, under pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The causeway to Key Biscayne has been partly shut down as county administrators consider a more than $30 million rehabilitation of the Bear Cut and West bridges' corroding steel beams.

Gimenez has repeatedly warned county commissioners that they should not count on federal money to finance the projects.

On Thursday, Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott called on Obama to reimburse the state for the $77 million Florida invested in the port dredging. For years, port officials unsuccessfully lobbied the federal government for the funds. The White House was quick to respond that the federal government provided a $340 million loan to help finance the tunnel project, and a $23 million grant to restore freight rail service between PortMiami and the Florida East Coast Railway.

Scott repeated the request in a statement released Friday during the president's visit.

"While we're happy to host the President, we hoped to hear a commitment to reimburse Florida taxpayers the millions of dollars the state invested for the federal portion of port projects in Miami and Jacksonville," he said. "We hope this reimbursement will be included in the President's budget proposal next week."

In a Miami Herald op-ed piece Friday, Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, criticized the Obama administration's "failed game plan of tax hikes and spending increases" and urged the president to consider small-government policies to help Miami's small businesses.

"It's time to fix the nation's economy by putting the ball back in the hands of the real playmakers: the hardworking Americans that drive our private economy," Rubio wrote.

McClatchy White House correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report from Washington.

Patricia Mazzei

Miami Herald