West Virginians eager for Biden money despite senator's concerns

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By Jason Lange and Makini Brice

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Shortly before President Joe Biden's speech urging Congress to pass his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, fellow Democrat Senator Joe Manchin told reporters he was "uncomfortable" with the vast sums of money Biden was proposing to spend.

Back in Manchin's home state of West Virginia, several elected officials, including Republicans, have a different message: The more money the better to draw new workers to the state, especially with high-speed broadband services.

"It's a lot of money, a lot of money," Manchin said ahead of a speech in which Biden laid out $4 trillion worth of spending proposals. "That makes you very uncomfortable. You wonder how we're going to pay for it."

In a 50-50 chamber where Democrats' majority hinges on Vice President Kamala Harris's tie-breaking vote, every senator is crucial, but none is more closely watched than Manchin, a fiscal conservative from a state that mostly votes Republican.

West Virginia lags most other states in the quality of its roads, bridges and internet services.

The American Society of Civil Engineers rates West Virginia a "D" for infrastructure, and nearly one in five residents of the state live in an area without fixed broadband, the third-worst in the nation, according to the Federal Communications Commission. (For a map of U.S. broadband access, click https://tmsnrt.rs/3aPlQS6)

The dire situation led the state's Republican governor, Jim Justice, last week to say he'd welcome the funds Biden is proposing.

An "Ascend WV" initiative unveiled by Justice this month aims to lure new residents with the promise that they can do their jobs remotely from a state where outdoor recreation abounds, the cost of living is low and there is an incentive of $12,000 in cash to relocate.

Experts say without expanding broadband the program is unlikely to be feasible in many areas of the state.

"We have so many projects in West Virginia that can really, really be of unbelievable benefit from this," Justice said at a news conference last week. "I have more wishes and hopes than I have concerns."

Four elected West Virginia Republicans and two Democrats said in interviews with Reuters or in public statements that they supported Biden's plan, although some expressed concern that programs other than infrastructure could also get funding.

THE PLAN

In addition to money for roads, bridges and broadband, Biden's proposal includes hundreds of billions for schools, home health care and manufacturing that congressional Republicans argue is unrelated to infrastructure.

Manchin, whose office declined to comment for this story, takes issue with Biden's proposal on the grounds that it raises corporate taxes too much and insists that it be passed with some bipartisan support, which is unlikely.

It will take some high-stakes maneuvering in the Democratic Party to get Manchin on board with Biden's plan, analysts said.

Congressional Democrats might try to appeal to Manchin with extra infrastructure funding for his state, said Jessica Taylor, a political analyst at Cook Political Report. Ultimately, they might need to scale back some of the spending plans.

"He obviously wields a lot of power in the Senate right now," said Taylor.

West Virginia's other senator, Republican Shelley Moore Capito, has joined a group proposing an infrastructure package about one-quarter the size of Biden's. That proposal includes $65 billion in funding for broadband access, compared with $100 billion in Biden's.

Neither party has yet produced a bill or provided detail on what specific things the funds would pay for.

Wherever it comes from, West Virginia legislators say they are unlikely to be able to fix their state's problems without federal support.

West Virginia is the only state in the nation to have lost population since 1950, despite being just a short drive from the nation's capital. Thirty-five of the state's 52 counties have areas where the population has no internet access, according to the West Virginia Broadband Council.

"What we need with broadband is for survival," said Rollan Roberts, a Republican state senator. "Any kind of help federally that we can get to, to help West Virginia, then that is going to help us transition from the downward spiral to drawing more people into our population."

(Reporting by Makini Brice and Jason Lange; Editing by Scott Malone and Sonya Hepinstall)