Billions in new federal money is coming to the rural West. Are people noticing?
Federal officials have already directed more than $50 billion to the Mountain West for infrastructure, climate and technology projects. It’s part of the Biden administration’s “Investing in America” agenda, which includes massive spending packages like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act.
This money can have major impacts on rural towns and counties in the region, but some residents either aren’t noticing or don’t care. Many Republicans support rebuilding roads and bridges, but they haven’t been swayed from their support for former president Donald Trump.
In Cheyenne, Wyo. – a town of about 65,000 people – residents are usually within a few minutes’ drive from a project funded with new federal dollars. Crews cleaned up an abandoned building to prepare it for redevelopment, added a jetway at the airport and redesigned several roads and highway interchanges.
Local resident Judy Englehart is in favor of some government spending, but says many people don’t know if the money comes from federal, state or other coffers.
“Infrastructure is really important. But I think sometimes it gets too political,” she said. “We probably have money here. But nobody's putting up any signs for it. Because nobody wants to say, ‘Yeah, we're using government money.’”
Cheyenne is located in Wyoming’s most populous county, which Trump carried by 28 percentage points in the 2020 election. Kenny Stroud is a longtime GOP member, and plans to vote Republican next year. Still, he likes many aspects of the Inflation Reduction Act.
“'I’m glad they're doing that. They’ll probably need to do more of it. Because I know – especially with the bridges – I know they're deteriorating,” Stroud said. “But are we stealing from Peter to serve Paul? Is that how we’re doing this?”
Beyond concerns about the federal debt and inflation, other residents dislike Biden because of his age, immigration policies and involvement in foreign conflicts.
“There's more money being spent in other places. We need more money spent at home,” said Larry Palmer. “Serving Americans. Homeless people. Veterans. Mental health. There's all kinds of American needs that are not being met.”
Residents of other parts of the region share similar sentiments. Biden carried only about a fifth of Mountain West counties in 2020, and gained most of his support in urban areas. This isn’t surprising, but some Democratic strategists say he needs to tighten the margins in rural America and rebuild the party’s brand, especially in key swing states like Arizona and Nevada.
So, members of his administration are visiting small towns across the region and nation.
In a recent trip to Colorado and Wyoming, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland touted climate provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act. Projects are plugging orphaned wells, conserving water and supporting tribal communities. At a speech in Jackson Hole, she said the Biden administration wants to help people – whether they voted red or blue.
“The Biden-Harris administration recognizes the significance of the West in meeting our goals for a more equitable, sustainable and successful future,” she said. “A future that serves every single person, no matter their zip code or how much money they have in the bank.”
Other officials have also been busy. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was in New Mexico earlier this year to discuss investments in broadband internet. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan visited Wyoming to learn about carbon capture. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm was in Arizona to highlight the nation’s improving electric grid and clean energy capacity.
These visits are a major part of Biden’s reelection agenda, but it’s unclear if they’re paying off. A recent poll shows that seven in 10 Americans have heard “little or nothing” about the Inflation Reduction Act, and the president’s approval rating dipped below 40 percent this month.
“I think there's more that can be done to communicate that what's happening on the ground – whether it's construction sites, workforce training programs or lower costs – can be tracked back to these major economic investments,” said Emily Gee, senior vice president for Inclusive Growth at the Center for American Progress think tank. “The more tangible the effects are, the better.”
Gee is optimistic that people will start to notice improvements in their lives. One poll shows that specific targets of recent federal spending packages – like investments in manufacturing or lowering prescription drug costs – are extremely popular.
“I don't worry as much about the actual names of the laws having name recognition,” Gee said. “What I think is important is that people do like these laws are doing.”
In some cases, these laws are protecting residents and improving public health. In Rawlins, Wyo., which has under 10,000 people, a water crisis last year forced a boil water advisory for about a week. So, the city is fixing it with the help of over $1 million in federal grant money. It’s also getting money to help clean polluted, abandoned sites.
Mayor Terry Weickum says part of his job is to find money wherever he can.
“I held my hand up and I took the oath to ensure health, safety and welfare. And some of these places are dangerous. And so we've asked for help on that,” he said. “And it's pretty exciting to get that done.”
Yet, Weickum is a Republican and doesn’t plan to change. He’s upset with other Biden administration policies – more so than he is happy with infrastructure funding. And he’s also worried about future debt.
“I'd be glad to eat an ice cream cone, I might be glad to eat 10 of them,” he said. “Now, what might happen next might be a little ugly. But it sure tasted good at the time. And sometimes I wonder if that isn't where we're at.
“On the other hand, if we don't go ask for that money to help our citizens to have these problems fixed…the money is going to be spent one way or another.”
Still, that money can have a particularly large impact on rural communities. One study found that Wyoming could get up to $7 billion in federal money from the climate provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act. That’s the equivalent of $12,000 for every state resident.
Time will tell if smaller areas have the capacity or desire to spend that kind of cash. It’s also unclear if any of this effort will make a difference politically – even if it’s making a massive impact on the economy.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.