One Pol's Stimulus Is Another's Crack Cocaine

When it comes to the stimulus, state lawmakers split along party lines

Committee Chair Jim Dunnam
Committee Chair Jim Dunnam (Photo by Jana Birchum)

"It appears that there's lots of people that know a whole lot about a little bit of the stimulus package, and there's some people that know a little bit about the whole thing, but nobody is able yet to know everything about everything."

Back on Feb. 19, that's how Waco Rep. Jim Dunnam explained the need for the Select Committee on Federal Economic Stabiliza-tion Funding (aka "the stimulus package") that he chairs. The Obama administration's plan to spend almost $800 billion to get the nation's economy rolling is huge, bigger than any one person can digest, and it has made everyone – but especially fiscal conservatives – nervous. Some of the more ideologically minded Southern governors have declared they won't take all or part of the cash, a position that Texas Gov. Rick Perry suggested momentarily, until he realized that playing chicken with the state economy by turning down $16.9 billion that would just go to other states wouldn't be so good for his 2010 re-election chances.

The battle is shaping up, rather predictably, between Democrats, who want to get the money quickly into people's pockets, and Repub­licans, who worry that the federal funding will eventually result in a permanent growth of government that would have to be sustained by the state. "Obviously, we're very, very concerned about using one-time money in programs that we're increasing the program, and then we're finding ourselves in a hole in the 2011 Session," warned Lt. Gov. David Dew­hurst in a press release. Dunnam's vice chair, Myra Crownover of Denton, argued with Dunnam on the dais and said, "This is our grandchildren's money, and that makes it even more of a sacred trust." Democrat Dun­nam, as reported in The Dallas Morning News, described the conservative warnings as "red herrings."

A report by the nonprofit Center for Pub­lic Policy Priorities released Feb. 13, before Dunnam's committee kicked off, specifically rejected the language used by Dewhurst: "Some express concern that the fund is 'one-time money' and should therefore not be used to fund programs that the legislature could not continue once the federal funds run out. A more accurate way to look at the money would be to consider it replacement dollars. The federal money replaces state revenue temporarily lost to the economic downturn. The federal money is intended to help states through fiscal 2011. By that time we can reasonably expect an improved state economy and improved state revenues."

The biggest chunk of that change would be $5.3 billion for Medicaid. That program is a joint state-federal operation, and the portion paid by Washington is known as the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage – expect to hear the acronym "FMAP" a lot as committee hearings continue. Other major provisions include a $3.3 billion block grant for education and $2.3 billion to be spent by the Texas Department of Transportation. (On Monday, Dunnam reacted angrily when he learned that TxDOT, without consulting legislators, had already allocated $500 million in stimulus funds for maintenance projects. "What it appears to be is a rush to spend these funds and obligate them before the Legislature can see how the money is going to be spent," Dunnam told the oversight committee. "The rush to spend the money is clearly an effort to avoid transparency and accountability on transportation dollars." For more on the story, see the Chronicle Newsdesk blog, austinchronicle.com/newsdesk, March 3.)

Another allocation that sparked a big fight was the $560 million for unemployment insurance. Accepting the money would require Texas to change its laws to allow more people to be eligible for benefits, something that Republicans oppose. Bill Ham­mond of the Texas Association of Business – a major political player who Texans may remember from political advertising scandals earlier this decade – argued that "it's like a drug dealer. The dealer gives you the first hit for free to get you hooked, and then you are addicted and are paying the consequences for a long, long time." Perry later echoed Hammond in the Statesman, saying, "This is exactly how addicts get hooked on drugs."

That set the Dems on fire. Dunnam called Hammond's comments (made to the Techno­logy, Economic Development & Workforce Committee) "obscene," and the Texas Democratic Party issued a statement contrasting the bailout with the handouts Perry makes to big business: "While Rick Perry compares out-of-work Texans to junkies, his Texas Enter­prise Fund has corporations like Countrywide hooked on easy money from hardworking Texas taxpayers."

At press time, opinions differed in the House on whether figuring out proper allocation of the funds would delay approval of the budget beyond the 140-day timetable required by House rules. Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts of Waxahachie insisted that the deadline could be met, but Sylvester Turner of Houston, speaking to The Dallas Morning News, warned: "Don't expect anybody to [defer if leaders] just say, 'We've got a timeline and vote out a shell [bill] and trust us as we move down the road.' That's not responsible. You run the risk of the deal going down."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

stimulus, Select Committee on Federal Economic Stabilization, Jim Dunnam, 81st Legislature

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