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FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2021, file photo, / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

Republican governors are appealing to the Biden administration not to restrict how states spend federal infrastructure aid with attempts to push what GOP leaders denounced as "a social agenda" that tries to use infrastructure regulations to encourage unionization, regulate contracting or limit some road projects to cut fossil fuel use and climate change.

"Excessive consideration of equity, union memberships or climate as lenses to view suitable projects would be counterproductive," the GOP governors said in a letter to President Joe Biden. "Your administration should not attempt to push a social agenda through hard infrastructure investments and instead should consider economically sound principles that align with state priorities."

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, who helped draft the letter along with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and 13 other Republican governors, said he spoke with Biden infrastructure czar Mitch Landrieu on Wednesday after the governors got a letter from Landrieu telling the states to use the federal aid "to achieve goals around creating good middle-class jobs, supporting disadvantaged and underserved communities, advancing climate resilience and sustainability and investing in American manufacturers."

Landrieu, a former New Orleans mayor, said formal rules on how the $1.2 trillion infrastructure spending package could be spent would reflect Biden's economic, equity and environmental priorities.

But Lee told reporters last week that states can best determine how the infrastructure money is spent.

"There was a multitude of governors that came together and said the more flexibility we have at the state level, the better this can be executed," Lee said during a news conference Thursday. "Every state is different, and every need is different."

In their letter to the president, the Republican governors said a "clear example of federal overreach" would be if the Federal Highway Administration prevented or restricted road-widening projects. Biden's Federal Highway Administration has suggested it would favor using the money to fix existing roads rather than building new ones, particularly if new roads encourage more distant travel or deforest more land in ways that might boost carbon emissions linked with global warming.

"Attempts to disallow the use of funding for general-purpose widening projects would be biased against rural states and states with growing populations," the Republican governors said. "Future prosperity would be negatively impacted if this anti-growth mindset is allowed to become firmly entrenched in transportation policy."

But environmental groups concerned about problems with global warming and pollution argue the historic infrastructure package must consider the environment in its future investments.

"The growing impacts of climate change already are affecting communities across the South and were made clear just last year when historic flooding killed 20 people and damaged hundreds of homes in Humphreys County, Tennessee," said Amanda Garcia, the Tennessee office director for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

In a statement in response to the Republican governors' letter, Garcia said "it is critical" that the infrastructure spending tackle climate changes and its causes.

"Rather than using the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework to perpetuate past mistakes, we must consider equity and climate change to ensure that these investments drive towards a new vision of transportation that works for people around the South and mitigates the threat of a changing climate," she said.

The GOP governors noted that Republican-led states had successfully challenged restrictions the Biden administration had placed on how states could spend money they received from the American Rescue Plan Act adopted by Democrats in Congress last March.

"Restrictions on the use of funds not authorized by statute are unacceptable and often struck down by the judicial system," Lee and other governors said in their letter. "In addition, excessive new discretionary grant programs would circumvent the planning process and potentially cause a programming and oversight nightmare."

Last year, Lee, who is chairman of the Republican Governors Public Policy Committee, also rallied a different group of 15 Republican governors to try to put pressure on Biden to address widespread supply chain delays by lifting some federal regulations on drivers and transports.

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan passed 228-206 in November. The vote was mostly party line, but 13 Republicans joined Democrats in support. None of the GOP support came from lawmakers in Tennessee, Georgia or Alabama.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340

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