States Have Limited Leeway For Stimulus Spending The Obama administration wants the economic stimulus money spent fast, and it's relying on states to do much of the spending. But Washington state's stimulus czar says Congress seems to be flagging most of the money for specific uses. That may leave states with less discretion over funds than they had hoped.
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States Have Limited Leeway For Stimulus Spending

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States Have Limited Leeway For Stimulus Spending

States Have Limited Leeway For Stimulus Spending

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

When Congress gives its final approval to the gargantuan stimulus bill, hundreds of billions of dollars will be shoved into the spending pipeline. At the other end of that pipeline, for many of those billions, will be state houses around the country. Doling out the stimulus funds is no easy job, as NPR's Martin Kaste found out. He spent a day with a man known as Washington state's stimulus czar.

MARTIN KASTE: Dick Thompson is a busy guy. He has a steady stream of petitioners coming to see him. They're booked almost every hour on the hour.

Mr. DICK THOMPSON (Washington State Stimulus Manager): 411, 411, come on in.

KASTE: Thompson is the Washington governor's point man on the stimulus money, and everybody wants a moment of his time. Representatives of cities, counties, local industries, some come in teams led by professional lobbyists, others, like Sarah Smyth McIntosh come alone.

Ms. SARAH SMYTH MCINTOSH (Condo Developer): And I'll give you just a brief overview of why I came to you to ask for some - what I call, Obama money.

KASTE: She's a condo developer here in Olympia, and she'd like the feds to help spruce up the neighborhood around her building. She's talking about a park, a trail, even a fish ladder - that's to help the spawning salmon up the local creek.

Ms. MCINTOSH: That's shovel-ready. That could put - that right there could put people to work, and that's only a $300,000 project.

KASTE: Thompson listens patiently, making sympathetic noises. He's a veteran of state government, now retired, and he's doing this job for free. His retiree attitude has a calming effect on people, as they make their pitches. Still, they don't want to leave his office until they know if they've made the list.

Mr. THOMPSON: People keep saying we have a list, and I keep saying we have a pile.


Mr. THOMPSON: But you'll be added to the pile.


KASTE: The pile is kept upstairs in the Office of Financial Management.

Mr. THOMPSON: Who wants to see the pile?

Mr. TOM SAELID (Office of Financial Management): The pile?


Mr. SAELID: It's a binder. This is the binder that we have of all the projects.

KASTE: Tom Saelid has been trying to impose some order on all the funding requests.

Mr. SAELID: This binder here has over 500. It's cities. It's counties.

Mr. THOMPSON: It's over 500 requests, because in some cases there may be more than one project in a request. So, you get a sense when you read these letters that they understand what's really available and what isn't.

Mr. SAELID: Not a clue.

KASTE: What they don't understand, says Thompson, is just how little control the state will have over this money.

Mr. THOMPSON: We really thought that there was going to be a lot of discretion, what I call, a big check. And we were going to be deciding between libraries, and sewer projects and road projects.

KASTE: Instead, he says, Congress seems to be channeling most of the money into specific uses: K-12, Medicaid, transportation, following pre-established guidelines. The money practically spends itself. The states may be left with what the pros call, peanut butter, just enough to spread around on small scale projects, the new intersections and repaving jobs that were already on regional to-do lists.

Governor Christine Gregoire, a Democrat and an early Obama supporter, has to admit that she was thinking bigger.

Governor CHRISTINE GREGOIRE (Democrat, Washington): I don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth, to be perfectly honest with you, we're in dire straits. So, I want to be appreciative, number one. But I will tell you the expectations were different than what we're seeing come out of Congress.

KASTE: But even though the states won't get to decide how to spend most of this money, the stimulus czar says the money will still flow through state hands.

Mr. THOMPSON: I call it like skipping a rock. It hits us long enough to be appropriated to the locals, but we may still end up being responsible back to the feds for the accounting for it.

KASTE: And that accounting means a lot of extra work.

Mr. SAELID: We don't want to have an entertainment calculator that…

KASTE: During one meeting, Thompson and staff try to brainstorm a way to count the jobs that are created by each project. Down the road, that number will be pretty important to the politicians. Irv Lefberg is the state forecaster who'll be doing some of those calculations. And he says he's already getting his first hard data.

Mr. IRV LEFBERG (Washington State Forecaster): We've gotten some calls from consultants that have been hired by local governments to help them with the applications.

KASTE: Those consultants, he says, may represent the first new jobs created by the stimulus package.

Mr. LEFBERG: And we haven't spent anything yet.

KASTE: Not exactly shovel-ready, but at least somebody's finding work.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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