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Thom Tillis is a rare Republican who voted for federal projects he now applauds | Opinion

Sen. Thom Tillis recently announced that North Carolina will receive $1 billion in federal funds to help build a new and faster passenger rail route between Raleigh and Richmond, Va.

“I’m proud this investment was made possible by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that I helped negotiate, write, and pass into law,” Tillis said.

It seemed a typical case of a member of Congress highlighting a federal benefit coming to his state, but this was unusual for two reasons:

First, Tillis is a Republican. Second, he voted in favor of the legislation that is providing the money.

Tillis and North Carolina’s other senator at the time, Richard Burr, were two of 19 Republican senators who joined Democrats in passing the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law despite objections from former President Donald Trump. Only 19 House Republicans voted for it – none of them from North Carolina.

Now, that money is beginning to flow into the state. It joins billions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act.

Lee Lilley, a Gov. Roy Cooper appointee who directs the state’s economic and pandemic recovery, said the new laws have brought more than $15 billion into North Carolina, with more to come as the state seeks additional grants.

The river of federal cash is expanding broadband internet access in rural areas, fixing roads and bridges, increasing the use of renewable energy and allowing for repairs and upgrades to water and sewer systems in rural counties.

Republicans blamed the burst of federal pandemic relief and infrastructure spending for fueling inflation, but inflation is dissipating and the benefits of public investment are just starting to take hold. Some Republican lawmakers who denounced the spending are now enjoying announcing new funds for their districts.

State Sen. Dan Blue, a Wake County Democrat and Senate minority leader, said, “They’re claiming credit that they aren’t entitled to claim.”

But he said the days of state budget surpluses buoyed by a temporary surge in federal funds will give way to deficits in the next budget cycle because of excessive state tax cuts. “The day of reckoning,” he said, “will come sooner than you think.”

Meanwhile, congressional Democrats and President Joe Biden aren’t getting the credit they deserve for pushing through funding for infrastructure investment. Much of the work of fixing bridges or improving water and sewer systems goes unnoticed by the public. Higher profile projects take years to design and construct.

Gerald Cohen, chief economist at the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said investments such as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) are about the future, not today.

“It’s the IRA of the late 2020s, not the early 2020s,” he said. “It’s spending money on things that are going to help us, but they are investments that take a long time to get built.”

The national economy came back rapidly from the pandemic disruptions thanks to direct federal relief and the untangling of supply lines. Now the economy is poised to see sustained gains from the spending Congress approved coming out of the emergency. “This is a case where it’s badly needed investment, and the multiplier effects of those are very high,” Cohen said.

Lilley said credit for the investments passed over the objections of most Republican lawmakers can be elusive, but North Carolina and the nation will benefit in the long run.

He said, “With some of these things we will be able to show a benefit relatively soon, but some of it is still going to be, as (former Cooper adviser) Ken Eudy would like to say, ‘planting trees under whose shade we will never sit,’ at least politically speaking. But I think it will make a really big difference for a lot of communities in North Carolina.”

With their votes for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Tillis and Burr saw the value of long-term investment in the nation’s structures and systems. Other Republicans – besides just at ribbon cuttings – should acknowledge it as well.

Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-404-7583, or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com