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OPINION | GREG HARTON: State's federal lawmakers say 'no' to $4 billion for Arkansas infrastructure

by Greg Harton | November 17, 2021 at 5:25 a.m.

It's an indication that we live in astonishing political times when Arkansas' two GOP senators and four Republican House members oppose an infrastructure bill expected to bring more than $4 billion to their home state.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader in the U.S. Senate, voted in August for the $1.2 trillion measure, calling it a "godsend" for his home state of Kentucky. He said he was "delighted" it passed the House last week.

Some House members opposed passage of the infrastructure bill because they're convinced it will serve as the catalyst for the Democrats' social spending agenda. For example, defending his vote against infrastructure spending Arkansas needs, Rep. Steve Womack of Rogers in Friday's edition criticized the billions of dollars it will provide for public transit, for passenger rail expansion and support for electric vehicle charging stations.

But his primary concern appeared to be that supporting the bipartisan infrastructure bill would "pave the way" for Joe Biden's Build Back Better social spending, which Womack termed "dangerous for America."

In speaking to reporters, McConnell said he remains staunchly opposed to the Build Back Better social spending bill Democrats want to pass next. For the last two-plus months, Democrats have wrangled among themselves, with the more liberal members attempting to thwart the infrastructure bill until they had assurances the social spending bill would be passed. But, McConnell said, infrastructure is different.

"Infrastructure, however, enjoys a 75% approval rating, passed on a bipartisan basis and I think it was the right thing to do," McConnell told reporters.

McConnell recognized the value the infrastructure spending has for his state. Even he wasn't ready to trade that away for party needs.

In a year in which Arkansans witnessed the discovery of a potentially calamitous failure in the steel holding up Interstate 40's bridge over the Mississippi River at Memphis, its representatives to Washington, D.C., chose political safe harbor rather than an influx of infrastructure funding to the state.

I suppose they figure Arkansans would rather hand defeat to Democrats than invest $3.6 billion in the state's highways; $528 million for systems to ensure clean drinking water; $278 million for bridges; $246 million for public transportation; $117 million for airports; $100 million for broadband; $54 million for electric vehicle charging; $23 million for wildfire protection; and $16 million to protect against cyber attacks.

Does anyone deny that Arkansas roads and highways need work?

Did the Washington delegation from Arkansas really say no to the economic impact the state will feel from this funding, including the creation of thousands of jobs?

When it comes to internet access, did the pandemic's impact on schools and students teach us nothing? In 2021 and beyond, education will never be equitable across the state as long as impoverished or low-income kids cannot access the wealth of information available through the internet.

I'm sure some folks might latch on to the spending for electric vehicle charging stations as proof of some kind of Green New Deal radicalism hidden in the bill, but we're 14 years away from the year General Motors says its will have eliminated its gas and diesel "light duty" cars and SUVS and moved to electric vehicles. In the grand scheme of infrastructure building, that's like 15 minutes from now. Other manufacturers are also getting aggressive on vehicles that do less damage to the environment.

I'll grant that it's a tough climb for Republicans to defeat the Democrats' social spending plan, but defeating the infrastructure bill wasn't worth doing lasting damage to Arkansas' efforts to expand and maintain its infrastructure.

There's a reason Gov. Asa Hutchinson, again proving a level of pragmatism that too many members of his party cannot muster, praised the legislation as "a bill that works for the American people."

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