January 31, 2009
State legislators took steps this week to ensure that Gov. Rick Perry’s snubbing of the federal economic stimulus package does not keep Texas from getting its share.
Texas could get almost $16 billion for health care, education, transportation and more under the $819 billion package approved Wednesday by the U.S. House of Representatives. The U.S. Senate is set to take up its bill next week.
The federal legislation requires that either a state’s governor or legislature request the money. And Perry’s distaste for the federal package left a question hanging in the Capitol about whether he would even ask for the money if it is approved.
Perry has made clear that he opposes the deal. He has said the federal response to the economy’s struggles is driving up the national debt, and the bailout mentality undermines Americans’ sense of personal responsibility.
The governor says Texas deserves its cut of the pie because Texas taxpayers will be financing it just like everyone else, spokeswoman Allison Castle said.
“He’s not asking Washington for a bailout,” Castle said. “What he will continue to ask the federal government for is to fulfill their basic responsibilities such as securing our border with Mexico and aiding the victims of hurricanes Dolly and Ike.”
On Wednesday, the Texas House of Representatives gave the Appropriations Committee the authority to initiate a request, just in case the governor won’t do it.
The measure passed the 150-member House with 126 votes.
State Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, who introduced the measure for debate, said the request must be made within 45 days after the legislation’s enactment and Perry might hold it “hostage” by putting conditions on the request.
“We don’t need to be playing politics with what needs to be done to fix our current financial problems,” Dunnam said.
Castle said she could not say whether Perry would refuse to request the money. She said the governor’s office won’t comment on the legislation while it is pending.
Meanwhile, state agency leaders have been combing through existing projects and programs to see what might be eligible under the stimulus legislation and what could be ready to go quickly if the money becomes available.
Officials at the State Energy Conservation Office have been dusting off about $35 million worth of unfunded requests to improve the energy efficiency of public buildings across the state.
The Texas Department of Transportation is poised to move quickly on $7 billion in projects, even though only about $2 billion in highway money could be coming, said Amadeo Saenz, executive director of TxDOT.
“Use it or lose it” provisions are included in the legislation, so the state risks losing money if it is not prepared to act when the dollars start flowing. For transportation projects, 50 percent of the money would have be obligated within 90 days or else it would go elsewhere.
“We want to be ready to take others’ money if they don’t use it,” Saenz said this week at a news briefing.
Castle said state agencies are working with the state’s congressional delegation to ensure they have accurate information about the effects of the various pieces of legislation.
That diffuse response could hinder Texas’ ability to take advantage of the opportunities in the federal package and to use the money effectively, said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who wrote a letter to budget leaders calling for a proactive effort on the stimulus package.
“We need to be preparing,” Watson said, because time will be key.
If Texas is not prepared, Watson said, “that money is going to go elsewhere.”
Wisconsin, for instance, created a temporary office to identify projects and programs that might be eligible for money and what the state would need to do to facilitate getting that money.
“Through this new office, we will work to turn federal stimulus money into paychecks as efficiently and quickly as possible,” Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle said in a news release.
State Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said Texas is in a different situation than most other states.
“We’re not broke,” said Ogden, chairman of the Finance Committee.