10 Feb Putting all that stimulus money to work may be harder than it seems
MADISON – Spending Wisconsin’s share of the $800-billion-plus economic stimulus package is shaping up to be heavy lifting.
It appears the longer Congress debates how, where and how much to spend on blunting the recession, the less policymakers in individual states such as Wisconsin know exactly what to expect when the big federal payday finally arrives.
Will most of the money pass through existing federal programs – or will states and local governments enjoy some measure of discretion? Will the spending mix go long on bricks and mortar and short on “New Economy” investments such as broadband and research? Will the bill entrust taxpayers to jumpstart the economy by spending their tax cuts – or place more faith in social and “safety net” programs?
Two examples help to tell the story in Wisconsin and other states that will soon be asked to spend their undetermined share of the stimulus dollars – quickly, effectively and with utmost accountability – to create jobs and halt the economic slide.
One of the early disclosures about the stimulus bill was the notion that federal dollars for schools, especially construction and maintenance projects, would come to individual school districts versus a statewide mechanism. In Wisconsin, where there are 425 school districts, that immediately led to questions about the ability of local school boards to agree upon stimulus-ready projects, let bids, hire contractor and break ground within the prescribed time. Because some local districts have stayed on top of their building needs (thanks, in part, to a state law that granted substantial aid for capital projects), it means there probably aren’t critical projects in each district.
Gov. Jim Doyle signaled his concern about the possible logjam at a recent meeting of education and business leaders in Madison, where he administrators to “get your projects ready to go. This is an opportunity to get a lot of (backlogged) work done quickly. I want to make sure Wisconsin takes full advantage of the stimulus act when it is finally passed.”
He also urged administrators to get to know nearby contractors now, and not be caught short because there’s no one available to do the work.
The debate over expanding broadband Internet service to rural and underserved areas is another example. Proponents say it will create jobs, build critical communications capacity and generally extend the information superhighway to every corner of the nation. The benefits include opening up parts of rural and inner-city America to economic growth, encouraging online health care and enhancing virtual education.
Skeptics wonder if the money can actually be spent effectively if “speed spending” is a goal. If states don’t understand the needs of the end users, they run the risk of adding broadband in the wrong places. A more deliberate approach, with spending ramped up over time, may make more sense from the standpoints of the technology providers and the consumers. But it’s not necessarily the quickest jolt to the economy.
There are also questions about maintaining “net neutrality,” or open-network requirements, to ensure competition. It’s a complicated picture that will likely require Wisconsin to rethink how regulations passed in the “black-telephone-on-the-wall” era apply in the Internet age.
Doyle announced creation of an Office of Recovery and Reinvestment in late January to get “federal money out the door for worthy and worthwhile projects that immediately jumpstart job creation, maintain jobs and invest in long-term economic growth in Wisconsin.” Some lawmakers have suggested they want more oversight – as well as a plan to cut state government’s deficits – before the federal money is spent.
There’s no doubt a stimulus package will eventually pass both houses of Congress, especially as President Obama heats up the warnings about the consequences of inaction. In order for Wisconsin to get the most out of its share of the package, however, cooperation and bipartisanship will be necessary.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.