Legislators plan to go after stimulus money

Posted: Friday, February 06, 2009

Alaska legislators are backing a resolution seeking the state's fair share of a federal stimulus package, despite concerns from fiscal conservatives that the package is a double-edged sword.

The Alaska House passed a joint resolution Wednesday voicing support for a comprehensive package - about $1 billion worth by some estimates - that would benefit all regions of the state.

The state Senate has had hearings on a similar resolution and could sign onto the House version.

But some lawmakers continue to express dismay over the more than $800 billion dollar national stimulus package that is bogged down in the U.S. Senate after passing the U.S. House last week. They warn the act could dump costly new obligations on the state once the federal dollars are gone.

Their objections are not with infrastructure spending but with provisions that could expand social, health or educational programs in the state.

"We want to be careful about providing programs that next year, when we're on our own, we might have to retract. It's unfair to those folks that receive the benefits," said Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.

Still, he said Alaskans don't want to be short changed.

"If there are funds available, we should get the most we possibly can," he said.

Stevens, House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Gov. Sarah Palin sent their concerns in a joint letter to the Alaska congressional delegation on Tuesday.

Alaska is also feeling the bite from the recession that has gripped Lower 48 states, they said, and the situation is further exacerbated by high fuel costs and the loss of state revenues from low oil prices.

"The federal stimulus must not add to already strained state budgets, now or in the future," they wrote.

Democrats, however, said the fear is overblown and accuse Republicans of grandstanding.

"Some programs cause me concerns too, but specific things in the plan - teachers for kids that are underachieving, unemployment insurance for people looking for work, health insurance - that's what some folks are objecting to, and I don't see the basis for those objections," said Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage.

Gara said lawmakers need to roll up their sleeves and have infrastructure projects ready to go if and when the bill passes.

The bill does not list specific projects or earmarks but would funnel money to states through formula programs. For example, highways projects would be funded through the existing statewide transportation improvement program while school construction projects would come off the Department of Education's school construction and major maintenance list.

Projects must be "shovel ready" and be completed in a certain amount of time. That's led to concerns that Alaska could lose out because of its short construction season and remote locations.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, said the problem in ice-bound rural Alaska is purely logistical.

"You aren't going to be flying materials in for projects. The most economical way is to barge them in, and we need to wait for spring time to get materials out so construction can begin," he said.

The U.S. House bill, designed to provide 18 months of help to states, included about $239 million for Alaska highways, $139 million to bump up Medicaid reimbursement and $34 million for weatherizing homes, among other provisions. The $900 billion Senate version is still in flux as Democrats on Capitol Hill scramble to win Republican votes for the measure.

The White House has been lobbying hard against Republican opposition, reaching out to states on Wednesday with a press release detailing state-specific impacts from the latest version of the measure.



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