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ANCHORAGE - Gov. Sarah Palin reinforced her conservative credentials when she announced she would not accept nearly one-third of the federal stimulus money offered to the state, but a day later was fending off critics who said it will hurt Alaskans.
Palin on Thursday said she would accept only 69 percent of the estimated $930 million dollars that could flow to the state. Palin said she would accept money that did not create strings binding the state in the future.
Palin's harshest critics said that in rejecting the stimulus money, the former GOP vice presidential candidate was making a play to match other Republican governors who may run for president in 2012, such as South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
"We think it is outrageous that we have a governor who is willing to turn down Alaskans' fair share of federal stimulus money, money that would got to education, public safety, unemployment resources, health programs," said Patti Higgins, chairwoman of the Alaska Democratic Party. "It is very clear that the governor is doing this just to further her own narrow political national agenda and ambitions."
Not so, said Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell.
He attended a press conference critical of Palin's decision held by the Anchorage mayor and superintendent of schools and said afterward Palin had no political agenda for the stimulus money.
Also, Palin did not "reject" the money, he said.
"That's your word, not mine," he said.
Instead, Parnell said, any "growing government-type" money will be considered in the legislative process, he said.
"The whole purpose of the governor not requesting all these operating budget funds is so that this very discussion could occur," Parnell said. "It could be done publicly. I think this is healthy for us."
South Carolina Gov. Sanford last week said he may reject nearly a quarter of the stimulus money available to his state. Perry, Jindal, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour have said they would reject a portion of the money that would expand unemployment benefits to those not currently eligible to receive them.
Palin on Thursday was free to make the announcement to "not accept" stimulus money, and enjoy the publicity that ensued, knowing the Alaska Legislature likely will do so. Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, signaled that probability last month.
"I think the governor has taken the high road here and I appreciate that," he said at a press conference Feb. 17. "She's spoken her mind and made it clear she's concerned that we may be getting ourselves in trouble down the road by taking monies that we can't sustain. I think I'd rather personally take the low road here and say I don't want to leave any money on the table."
Any money that will help Alaskans, even if it cannot be sustained, would be advantageous, Stevens said.
Palin said Alaska would not be "bound by federal strings in exchange for dollars" and would not dig itself a deeper hole in two years when the federal funds were gone.
"For instance, in order to accept what look like attractive energy funds, our local communities would be required to adopt uniform building codes," she said. "Government would then be required to police those codes. These types of funds are not sensible for Alaska."
A Democrat who wants Palin's job, Bob Poe, said former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens have been bragging about scoring federal money for Alaska.
"Federal spending represents about one-third of Alaska's economy each year," Poe said. "The federal government owns 59 percent of Alaska, and Sarah Palin is rejecting this $288 million because she thinks it will give the federal government too much control over Alaska? Personally, I find that kind of incomprehensible."
Matt Claman, the Anchorage mayor, and Carol Comeau, the superintendent of schools, stayed away from Palin's intentions but restated why not accepting more stimulus money would hurt.
Unlike previous federal grants, Claman said, there's no obligation to continue programs started with federal seed money.
Claman said $7.2 million in statewide public safety money would not put more officers on the street but would pay for programs helping victims of domestic violence, a measure that might prevent future crime.
Comeau, who oversees a school district larger than Seattle's, said Anchorage schools were in line for $12.9 million in special education money and a similar amount for Title I programs that serve economically disadvantaged children. The latter money, she said, could give educators latitude to try "innovative best practices" to help students at risk of failing. Comeau's personal preference: an expansion of pre-kindergarten programs to prepare economically disadvantaged children for learning.
Expansion would not saddle the district with additional costs two years from now if the federal money ends, she said. If the programs were successful, she said, district planners could swap out something else.
"That's like any grant we ever get," Comeau said.
Parnell said he was heartened to hear Comeau say some money would be used for training. Palin wants to hear more discussion about how stimulus operating money could be used, he said.
"I think that if she's satisfied that adequate public discussion has occurred and that the adequate planning has occurred, I think that's going to be her decision at that point."
And might she then accept the money?
"I'm not going to say what she would or wouldn't do," Parnell said.