Friday, February 20, 2009

Idaho ponders stimulus bucks

Lawmakers weigh $787 billion bill

Express Staff Writer

Idaho politicians are scrambling to find uses for an expected infusion of federal cash provided by the American Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act. That includes Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, who now has a bird's-eye view of the situation from her new seat on the state's budget-writing committee.

President Barack Obama signed the $787 billion legislation into law Tuesday during a stop at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

The same day, Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter issued an executive order creating a "stimulus executive committee" to be appointed by Otter to review state agency information and make recommendations on how best to use the federal dollars designated for Idaho in the federal law, a news release from the governor's office states.

Recommendations from the newly formed committee will be due by the close of business on March 19.

"There remain a lot of unknowns here," Otter warned. "It will take a lot of work to get our arms around all the implications of this law."

Like many other Idaho politicians, Otter has taken a cautious approach to the prospect of receiving federal dollars as the legislation negotiated its way through the Democratically controlled Congress.

"This is taxpayer money, and all of us are committed to seeing it used in the most effective and efficient way possible," he said.

Each state agency will have until noon on March 4 to submit information to Otter's office detailing how it anticipates using the stimulus funds.

On the legislative side of things, members of Idaho's Senate and House are also working to get a handle on the potential impacts of the legislation and alternatives for spending the funds. According to Jaquet, Idaho legislators and their staff are reviewing which state agencies could benefit most from the money.

"Our analysts are working very hard," Jaquet said during an interview with the Idaho Mountain Express. "We're just not going to wait for the governor to tell us what he thinks."

She admitted that her recent appointment to the powerful Joint Finance Appropriations Committee, also known as JFAC, is now looking quite opportune.

Jaquet said state politicians are all taking the same approach to identifying uses for the federal money: "Is it sustainable after the stimulus money isn't there?"

She identified transportation, health and welfare, and education as among the highest priorities legislators are considering. And while the ultimate outcome of the legislation in Idaho may be somewhat in doubt, Jaquet is fairly certain about one thing: The Idaho legislature's end is not quite in sight.

"I think we're going to be here a little bit longer," she said.

Hanging like a cloud over their discussions are recent numbers highlighted by Jaquet that show a 137 percent gain in unemployment in Idaho during the past year, to a total of 50,000.

During a speech before the Idaho Senate on Wednesday, freshman U.S. Sen. Jim Risch lambasted the federal stimulus package, The Associated Press reported. Risch, who joined the rest of the Idaho congressional delegation in opposing the bill, said it has too many projects that benefit individual lawmakers' districts without focusing enough on alleviating the housing and banking sector crisis.

Joining Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, Risch urged state lawmakers to use caution when spending Idaho's share of the federal money.

White House estimates suggest Idaho could see the creation of about 17,000 jobs statewide because of the stimulus legislation. Closer to home, the estimates suggest that Idaho's 2nd Congressional District, which includes Blaine County and the Wood River Valley, could gain 7,900 jobs.

Local city and county officials have been hard at work trying to ensure they don't miss out on the federal dollars. Altogether, Blaine County, Ketchum and Hailey officials have submitted stimulus requests totaling $130.6 million. The requests include road and bridge work and wastewater plant upgrades.

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