Senator Joe Manchin says states like West Virginia should start getting organized for anticipated federal infrastructure dollars.
Gov. Jim Justice says that preparation has already begun, although he doesn’t have many details yet.
“Something’s gonna happen. If we’re not prepared, God help us. If we sit around twiddling our thumbs — ‘I want this.’ “No, I need this.’ ‘I think you should do this,'” Manchin said in a call with reporters last week, making specific reference to several longstanding highways projects that are obvious priorities.
“We’re doing everything we can. Internet and transportation with our roads gives us a chance to survive.”
Congress is assessing a broad-ranging, $2.25 trillion infrastructure bill, although there are already multiple alternatives. The end result is likely to be the result of negotiation.
The Biden administration’s proposal would address U.S. roads, bridges, airports, broadband, housing and utilities while investing in job training along with care for elderly and disabled Americans. A major element running through the proposal is dealing with the effects of climate change.
Governor Justice last week endorsed the federal infrastructure spending, acknowledging he doesn’t know all the details. But he said planning has begun.
“I have more wishes and hopes than I have concerns,” Justice, a Republican, said of the infrastructure proposal. “I hope and pray our infrastructure bill puts an incredible amount of resources into infrastructure, not into pet projects that don’t help in any way.”
The governor described initial efforts to get organized at the state level.
“All of our people are working it,” he said, “compiling a list and everything else that goes with it.”
Manchin, D-W.Va., agreed that those talks have begun.
“I’ve spoken to the governor about this,” he said. “Hopefully they’re going to put a professional committee together that has expertise in water, expertise in sewage, expertise in internet connectivity.”
As initially introduced by the Biden administration, the infrastructure proposal would:
- Allocate $621 billion for transportation infrastructure such as bridges, roads, public transit, ports, airports and electric vehicle development
- Focus $400 billion on care for elderly and disabled Americans
- Dedicate more than $300 billion into improving drinking-water infrastructure, expanding broadband access and upgrading electric grids
- Invest more than $300 billion into building and retrofitting affordable housing, along with constructing and upgrading schools
- Push $580 billion in American manufacturing, research and development and job training efforts
Members of Congress are still debating what should be in the bill. Republicans, in particular, have advocated a scaled-down version. Manchin also has said he would prefer a bill with a clear focus on infrastructure.
But he said some version of an infrastructure bill is likely to pass and that preparation would be wise.
“This is going to happen. We are going to be able to have a chance to revitalize West Virginia and, especially, our coal areas that have supplied the energy this country has depended on for a century. We have that commitment from the Biden administration. We need to do it and do it right,” Manchin said.
“The quicker that these areas can pinpoint the priorities they have and what it would take and what it needs to be done — not just pie in the sky and wishful thinking, but planning that goes behind it.”
West Virginia’s Legislature, in a session that ended earlier this month, considered and ultimately laid aside a couple of measures that might have played a role in organizing state priorities.
“I go by the old adage, ‘A goal without a plan is just a wish,'” said state Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier. “Significant federal monies are on the way. We need to have a plan to spend it wisely. If we don’t, the same thing that has happened for the last 20 years with broadband will happen — nothing.”
One rejected policy was an amendment to a broadband bill to establish several funds that would have been ready for coming allocations.
The funds were meant to provide regional planning agencies matching funds for the federal monies, to set up middle mile where it’s still lacking and to provide an open access pilot program. The funds would have flowed through the focus and expertise of the West Virginia Broadband Office.
The other was a ‘Coal Communities Comeback Plan’ that was amended into a bill dealing with coal-fired power plants before ultimately being rejected by the Legislature’s supermajorities.
The comeback plan would have directed the Public Service Commission to study the water and wastewater, broadband and other infrastructure needs necessary to revitalize communities. The study would also have searched for opportunities to maintain and increase jobs in coal mines, coal-fired power plants and other economic drivers in the communities.
“If funds come and there’s no plan, we’ll waste time and money coming up with one. That amendment didn’t even presume to say what the plan was; it just charged the state with developing a plan. So when the money comes, we would be ready to go,” Baldwin said.
“Both amendments failed. So there is no plan.”
Without a coherent strategy, he said, West Virginia runs the danger of flailing.
“My fear is that these funds will go the way of previous federal awards and not really solve the problems. My hope is that the governor will bring together experts in the field and use these proposals as blueprints. The Legislature dropped the ball, but it’s not too late. We need to be developing a comprehensive plan right now.”
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, a West Virginia native, made a public appearance with Manchin last week to highlight proposals aimed at maintaining and developing jobs in traditional coal communities.
The UMW’s proposals include direct grants to coalfield counties, communities and school districts to replace lost tax revenues for 20-year period. The UMW is also urging targeted infrastructure rehabilitation and development funding to coalfield communities for roads, bridges, broadband, school and health care facilities.
“We need to lift up those communities and provide jobs in those communities,” Roberts said. “Anywhere we can find a job or a manufacturing base for these areas, we need to do it. The tax base has been eroded.
“What we’re talking about is bringing real money, real jobs and a real future for Appalachia.”
Manchin, late last week, expressed optimism about a federal task force to focus on the economic revitalization for coal communities.
The White House Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization delivered a report to President Joe Biden to highlight the initial recommendations for promoting economic revitalization, to create jobs that would help workers to thrive, and to support hard-hit coal, oil and gas, and power plant communities across the country.
As a first shot in the effort, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $109.5 million in funding to support job creation in places affected by the disruption of traditional energy markets.
The White House task force, which brings together a spectrum of federal agencies, has promised to embark right away on a series of town hall meetings to hear from communities about what could help.
“For generations, our coal miners have sacrificed their health and safety to mine the coal that forged the steel and provided the power that made the United States the greatest nation in the world,” Manchin said of the effort.
“I am encouraged to see President Biden acknowledge these contributions and start to allocate the resources that will be required to reinvest in these communities who have suffered huge job losses.”