White House Presses States On Stimulus

As the administration is pushing nearly 800 billion dollars out the door to stimulate the economy, it's also pressing the states to carefully monitor the spending in the stimulus package and report back on its effectiveness.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

As the administration is pushing nearly $800 billion out the door to stimulate the economy, it's also pressing the states to carefully monitor the spending in the stimulus package and report back on its effectiveness. Today at the White House, the president and vice-president hosted representatives from nearly every state and the District of Columbia to talk about that oversight. And the message was simple: Let's get this right. As NPR's Scott Horsley was there and he joins us now. Scott nearly every state was there - who didn't show up?

SCOTT HORSLEY: That's right Michele, 49 of the 50 states were represented along with the District of Columbia. Idaho was lone no-show.

NORRIS: And the explanation there?

HORSLEY: Well, an aide to the vice president told us that Idaho didn't have the resources to make it to this conference.

NORRIS: Okay, so they had a good excuse.

HORSLEY: Yes, maybe they're already busy putting the stimulus dollars to work.

NORRIS: You know a lot of these White House conferences tend to have a somewhat celebratory mood. I'm wondering about the mood at this meeting. Was it pretty somber?

HORSLEY: Well, this was - this was a working session. There was some cheerleading from the president. He told the representatives of the states that this is a great opportunity for them. But he also recognized that they have got a monumental task ahead of them. I mean, a lot of states are suddenly finding themselves with a whole lot more money to spend, and not necessarily the systems and controls in place to keep track of all that. And as you said, the simple message from both the president and the vice president, who he has tasked to really ride herd on this, is that the states, the government at every level has to do this right. The taxpayers are watching.

They have invested a lot of faith and of course this huge amount of money in this, so let's not blow it. Vice President Joe Biden said there will be some more regulations coming out tomorrow to help provide guidance for the states. But he said that look if the states are found to be spending money in ways that don't meet the federal government standards, don't bother coming back to Congress for anymore.

NORRIS: So, I'm just curious. Are they - when they talk about regulation and oversight are they're talking about looking out for fraud or about making sure that the money is spent quickly and overall who's going to watch out for this?

HORSLEY: Well, certainly they want to prevent fraud. But the most - more than that, they wanted to do three things the vice-president said. First is get money into of the hands of people. Some of that's already happening with the increased unemployment benefits, the size of the benefits has been increased and the length of duration of benefits have been stretched out. Secondly, the vice president said, look let's make sure that we're spending this money in ways that creates jobs, whether that's working on a bridge or highway projects or whether it's fixing up schools.

NORRIS: And that can take time because of the permits and all the paperwork that you generally have to file.

HORSLEY: Well, that's right, but that's still talking about jobs in the short run. And then the third thing he said is, look let's try - if we're going to be putting people to work anyway - let's try to put them to work in things that will contribute to the long-term foundations of the economy - that's the investments that are being talked about in education, in healthcare, and in energy.

NORRIS: Speaking of energy, the vice president and the energy secretary also announced some new money for weatherizing energy efficient projects today. Tell us about that, Scott.

HORSLEY: Yes, you know, the stimulus package includes $8 billion for weatherizing homes, housing projects, government buildings, and taking steps that will make those buildings more energy efficient, saving either the individual homeowners or the government money. But of that $8 billion, the government is only releasing the first installment right away - the first $800 million - so they're keeping the states on a short leash. It's kind of like a parent giving a kid a little bit of his allowance and saying, don't go out and blow this all on candy and then we'll talk about giving you the rest.

NORRIS: Before we let you go, did you have a chance to talk to some of the state reps that were there?

HORSLEY: Yes, we heard from some of the folks who had come from as far away as New Mexico to attend the conference. They were generally impressed. They were glad they got a chance to talk with some of the cabinet secretaries. They heard from Earl Devaney, the watchdog, who will be keeping eye on all this money, but they still do have some questions about just how they're going to have to account for the stimulus funds, you know, what sort of forms are going to be filled out, what kind of computer spreadsheets have to be completed. They got some of those answers today, but they also acknowledge that some of the details will have to be filled in, in the days and weeks to come.

NORRIS: Scott, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Michele.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Scott Horsley.

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