The devil is in the unknown details

January 18, 2009
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Shortly after Barack Obama is sworn in as the nation’s 44th president Tuesday, the new administration’s $800 billion economic stimulus package will grab even more headlines.

Until the package’s details are carved in stone, Walker Mayor Rob Ver Heulen said now is the time for members of the Grand Valley Metro Council to influence state lawmakers on how the money should flow through the state.

“We all need infrastructure help,” said Ver Heulen.

But as of early last week, no one was sure how much federal assistance Michigan will get from the stimulus or how the money would be distributed throughout the state.

Metro Council Executive Director Don Stypula said he thought the federal government would send states block grants that would be dedicated to specific public works like roads, bridges, transit, clean water treatment plants and wastewater systems. But he fears that some state officials will want to turn the federal grants into a low-interest loan program that local units of government would have to repay.

“I think we can do this with a grant program,” he said.

Stypula also said he told the area’s Congressional representatives and the state’s U.S. senators that the federal funds can’t come to Michigan with a match requirement because the money isn’t there. Lansing is looking at a $200 million shortfall for the current fiscal year and about a $1 billion deficit for 2010 and 2011 as things now stand.

Metro Council Transportation Director Abed Itani said the state can’t use the stimulus money as a match for other federal funds, such as transportation dollars.

“They won’t stand for that,” he said of Congress.

Itani estimated that Michigan would receive from $500 million to $1 billion a year for the next two years from the stimulus package, and the local region would get from $15 million to $20 million of that amount for transportation items each year.

He also said the Metro Council, the area’s metropolitan planning organization, would have a strong say in how those local dollars will be spent.

“They’re demanding accountability,” Itani said of the new administration. “Everything is going to flow down to the MPO for a final list (of projects).”

Stypula said he wasn’t sure whether the stimulus will include funds to retrofit government buildings for a more energy-efficient future. Nor was he certain how Congress would deliver the necessary legislation, as Senate Democrats don’t have 60 votes to prevent a filibuster by Republicans, who appear to be eagerly adhering to a conservative spending agenda.

“I don’t know how Congress is going to do this. They’ve gotten drunk on this in the past,” said Stypula, borrowing a phrase from outgoing President George W. Bush.

“It’s my understanding that (earmarks) will not be tolerated by the new administration.”

Stypula said the Metro Council would continue to push Lansing hard to come up with more transportation funding. He noted that state lawmakers had a chance to raise the gas tax last month by 4.5 cents per gallon a year for the next two years while pump prices were low, which would have added from $1 billion to $1.5 billion to the fund.

But Stypula said legislators either ran out of time before the lame-duck session ended last month or didn’t desire to raise the tax during a recession. And he doesn’t see an increase on the horizon for this year either because Gov. Jennifer Granholm recently said she wouldn’t support any tax increase in 2009.

“I don’t see it happening,” he said.

Itani felt the money coming from the stimulus package is allowing state lawmakers to “punt” on the issue of raising revenue for Michigan’s transportation and transit needs, a pot that he said should be doubled.

“This issue makes me so furious,” said Milt Rohwer, who represents Grand Rapids on the council and heads the Frey Foundation. “I don’t know how anybody can think we’re not going to turn our roads into gravel without some money.”

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