Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Can't we all get along when it comes to spending stimulus funds?

For years, state and local officials in Wisconsin and across the nation have pleaded with federal officials for more help in addressing their crumbling infrastructure. Now that it appears those pleas may be answered as part of a huge federal stimulus package, disagreement has arisen over who gets to control and spend the money.

State governments received welcome news earlier this month when President-elect Obama told the National Governors Association that the stimulus package he was planning would include substantial allocations to the states for roads, bridges, mass transit and other public works projects. That news, however, was not as well-received by local government officials.

Stateline.org reports the National League of Cities and National Association of Counties have sent a report to the Obama transition team arguing that local governments should receive the bulk of the funds, as they're better equipped than states to spend infrastructure dollars quickly and effectively. Local officials also argue they need more help than state governments because states already are hitting them with recession-induced cuts in state aids.

State officials counter that they're the appropriate recipients given the mechanisms already in place to receive and distribute federal infrastructure allocations. They also contend that states have a bigger picture view of infrastructure needs and can properly allocate stimulus dollars in a manner that will best serve the greatest number of residents.

This national dispute is being replicated in Milwaukee. After Governor Jim Doyle sent a $3.7 billion wish list of infrastructure projects to federal officials, Milwaukee Alderman Bob Bauman criticized the governor for failing to consult with local officials and sacrificing local road and bridge needs for state highway expansion projects. More recently, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett sent his own list of $599 million in infrastructure projects to the president-elect.

So how should this dispute be settled? One interesting idea comes from a University of Maryland professor who suggests a national commission modeled after the federal base closing commission. The commission would review potential stimulus-funded infrastructure projects and provide a list for Congress that would receive an up or down vote in its entirety. That approach certainly has potential to eliminate the intrusion of pork-barrel spending, but could a national commission be fair to localized infrastructure projects, which tend to be far less glamorous than larger state projects?

This is a very difficult issue to referee because both sides have a point. Federal transportation dollars typically are distributed to states precisely because the feds have little interest or capacity to get involved in divvying up dollars to local projects. Also, state government does have an appropriate role to play in funding and coordinating a statewide transportation network that serves residents and businesses beyond local boundaries.

It is this very dynamic, however, that often prevents local transportation needs and wants from being addressed. Projects like the Marquette Interchange always receive priority from state officials because of their statewide importance and the number of people they serve. Such prioritization arguably would be fully justified and acceptable if there were some remaining fiscal capacity to also fund high priority local road and transit projects.

Too often, however, there is not. Furthermore, in Wisconsin, the requirement that the non-federal share of transit projects must be funded at least in part with local dollars is an additional huge impediment. Consequently, localized transportation projects either fall to the local property taxpayer or simply don't get done. The City of Milwaukee's huge local street repair backlog and continued inaction on commuter rail and light rail/bus rapid transit exemplify this dynamic.

Alderman Bauman is right about the need for better consultation between state and local officials, albeit without the hyperbole that typically accompanies transportation discussions in southeast Wisconsin. In light of the certain strife that will occur between the state and local governments when it comes time to cut the state budget, it certainly would be refreshing to see consultation and cooperation regarding how to spend that rare influx of federal transportation dollars.

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