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Former Missouri secretary of state has key role in spending billions on infrastructure

U.S. General Services Administrator Robin Carnahan conducts a round table discussion with politicians, labor leaders and educators during a visit to the Plummer's and Pipefitters Training Facility in Earth City, Missouri on Thursday, March 31, 2022.
Bill Greenblatt
U.S. General Services Administrator Robin Carnahan conducts a roundtable discussion with politicians, labor leaders and educators during a visit to the Plumbers & Pipefitters Training Facility in Earth City last month.

It’s been a little over a year since President Joe Biden tapped Robin Carnahan to lead the General Services Administration.

The former Missouri secretary of state and daughter of the late Gov. Mel Carnahan is in charge of an agency that oversees federal buildings and handles big-ticket federal contracts. Among other things, the General Service Administration will play a role in executing a federal infrastructure law that is slated to pump billions of dollars into Missouri.

Carnahan spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Jason Rosenbaum about what she’s worked on since being confirmed for the job and some of her goals for the future.

Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Jason Rosenbaum: What does the General Services Administration do and why does it matter to people?

Robin Carnahan: Many people don’t know much about GSA, because it often supports other federal agencies rather than just directly working with the public.

There are three primary buckets. The first is overseeing all the federal buildings. We’re the biggest landlord in the country. And the GSA also leases commercial buildings on behalf of federal partners. So it’s one of the biggest tenants in the country in that way. There’s 370 million square feet of space and over 8,000 buildings.

The second bucket is procuring goods and services on behalf of government agencies. And that totals somewhere in the ballpark of $75 billion annually in contracts. And then the third bucket is digital technology and services. We’ve seen over the last couple of years an increase in need for that. So GSA is in the middle of helping the government do that better as well.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) speaks to the media on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021, at the site of the future National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters in St. Louis, Mo.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, speaks to the media in October at the site of the future National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters in St. Louis.

Rosenbaum: One of the notable things about your confirmation process last year was how Sen. Roy Blunt strongly supported your nomination. And both of you ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010. How has that initial support helped you in your role as administrator, especially since Blunt is a major player in the appropriations process and also has been heavily involved in key Missouri projects where GSA plays a role?

Carnahan: Sen. Blunt as you said has been a big supporter through this — from my first conversation with him before my appointment was announced. He helped me in my confirmation, and it made a difference. And he’s been a close ally as I’ve been in this job. I call him regularly about things.

And frankly: In a place where there’s a lot to fight about, much of the work GSA does has bipartisan momentum. We’re about making government work better and saving money. Those are the things we’re all about and those are things that everybody’s for. So Sen. Blunt and I work closely on those things, because we’re completely aligned.

Rosenbaum: April 6 of 2021 was actually the day President Biden announced your nomination. What are some of the major initiatives you’ve been working on since you got confirmed?

Carnahan: Obviously part of the really important work that we’re doing on behalf of the Biden administration is the implementation of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. That is a once-in-a-generation investment in infrastructure that is not only about building our communities and creating paying jobs there, but just part of building the economy and helping us bounce back after the uncertainty of the past two years.

These investments are across the board. They’re in bridges and rail and airports and public transit and safe drinking water and the internet. All those things. And we’re in the midst of helping with much of those agenda items.

The St. Louis Arch is pictured from the Eads Bridge during daybreak on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022, in St. Louis, Mo.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis Arch is pictured from the Eads Bridge during daybreak on Feb. 1. Carnahan's agency will play a big role in executing the federal infrastructure bill.

Rosenbaum: Can you explain what the GSA’s role is in actually executing the infrastructure bill?

Carnahan: Some of the infrastructure funding came directly to GSA to do some projects. There are about $3.4 billion worth of projects that are mainly focused on the border. So land ports of entry, they’re called. They’re entry stations built on the northern and southern borders — upgrade those so they’re up to post-9/11 security standards. But also, we want to make sure they’re reflecting our other principles and commitments, particularly around sustainability. Because we know building materials have changed a lot over time. And energy sources have changed a lot over time. So we’re going to be thinking about that.

It’s also an incredible opportunity for good-paying jobs. Presidents and politicians love to talk about infrastructure. But not all of them get much done. Now we have to have a highly skilled workforce to be able to do the work. So I was in St. Louis recently at a job training center talking right to the folks that are going to be getting those jobs and getting that work done.

Rosenbaum: What sort of role does your agency have to make sure the workforce that ends up working on these jobs reflects the diversity of America? I know one long-standing goal with public-private partnerships is to provide opportunities for racial minorities and women to work on these projects.

Carnahan: We have lots of competing interests when it comes to using public money. One is we want to leverage the public resources that do things to reflect our values and also get the best value for taxpayers. So those are things we think about all the time. The president has signed executive orders focusing on things like supporting women- and minority-owned businesses. We at GSA have a lot of programs that help folks that have these companies get contracts with the government. We’re also very focused on sustainability and fair wages.

So we’re balancing all of those things. And what’s important to me is that there’s a lot of transparency about this. We are doing things that reflect our values. And our agency partners are able to know what they’re buying.

Rosenbaum: How confident are you that the aspirations of this bill will actually get fulfilled?

Carnahan: I do have a lot of experience moving around the state. And the key thing here is for the funding that goes to states. Missouri’s going to get $7 billion, with a "b," to upgrade roads and bridges. So the priorities on how that’s done is going to be very closely aligned with the state.

There’s $670 million for public transit in Missouri alone. You know, $100 million for electric vehicle charging stations in Missouri alone. One hundred million for broadband coverage. $860 million for water infrastructure to help schools and communities get rid of lead pipes. Like this is real money going to invest in our state that is also going to create good-paying jobs in our state.

So it’s really exciting. I remember when my dad was running for governor years ago. He wanted to talk about infrastructure. I remember us saying, "Oh Dad, everybody wants good infrastructure — but nobody wants to talk about it." Well, you know here we are years later — and we’re having the biggest infrastructure investment in our state that has happened in my lifetime. So I’m pretty excited about it, because it sets us up for a more resilient future.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.