Even before the stimulus bill cleared congress last week, state and local officials who are facing crumbling infrastructure and massive budget shortfalls started scrambling for position in the debate on how to spend the money.
Here in Missouri, the Department of Transportation says that within the first 180 days of the President affixing his signature to the legislation and making it law, they are ready to go with 34 “shovel ready” transportation projects that will cost $510 million dollars and create 14,000 jobs. In a just world, none of those projects that are on tap for the MO 07 would see a single shovel of dirt turned, since the representative the people of the Seventh insist on sending to Washington has done nothing but denounce the efforts to revive the economy via any mechanism except tax cuts.
When Mr. Obama signs the stimulus bill in Denver on Tuesday, it will release the biggest influx of federal dollars since the days of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society program. But it also is expected to set off a multitude of political battles across the map: between governors and legislatures, state capitols and city halls, and even between neighboring municipalities.
Because the effectiveness of any stimulus plan depends on the money being quickly spent, whether state and local governments can work through the rules and resolve any disputes will have a large impact on the success Mr. Obama’s plan has in lifting the economy.
Along with the money, there are complex rules to the sprawling, $787 billion federal plan that local politicians from governors to small-town mayors say they are only now beginning to grasp. And while states will have direct say on the use of much of the money – especially on infrastructure projects like roads and bridges – many spending decisions will still rest with officials hundreds of miles away in Washington.
“Still, within the parameters given, there are a lot of policy choices and decisions states and localities have to make,” said Scott D. Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers.
Mr. Pattison said he has faced a barrage of questions in recent days from state budget officials on matters like how much discretion states will have, how the money will be transferred and how it must be tracked.
“This is all rather daunting,” he said. “It’s a lot of money, and this is happening fast.”
It would be naïve to think that political brinksmanship will be set aside. It was undoubtedly underway before the bill was passed. Once the money starts flowing it will undoubtedly be fought over bitterly – and the fighting will transcend party politics. Here in Missouri, I have no doubt that rural and urban schools will square off and fight bitterly over every dime allocated to those on the other side of the issue.
Anyone who thinks that everyone is going to join hands and pull together and put their backs into it is delusional. Once the funds are allocated, that is when the real fighting will start.