Pins and Needles

Fans, followers and odds-makers were betting on who would win the 2009 Super Bowl way back before the first regular season game even started. Imagine, then, the suspense they must’ve felt at halftime on Sunday. They’d come this far and were only 30 minutes of game play away from finally cashing in. Or losing big.
Mayors, governors and county commissioners know the feeling.

There was buzz about a federal stimulus package helping to bail out battered state budgets for months before Barack Obama was ever sworn in as president. Now that he’s finally in office, and the House of Representatives has passed an $819 billion stimulus package (putting us at halftime, for the sake of this metaphor), the excitement in regional government seems almost palpable. State agencies across the country are drawing up wish lists — projects considered “shovel-ready,” and thus eligible for federal funds — and crossing their fingers that Congress pays out.

Gov. Chris Gregoire must be feeling particularly anxious. Gregoire was criticized in December for assuming a certain amount of federal help in her budget. Even with that assumed aid, she called for massive cuts in every corner of state government, in an effort to close an all-time-high $6 billion shortfall. Now, as The Olympian reports, Washington may be getting even more from the federal government than it first expected, with estimates between $3.6 billion and $4.7 billion.

A $6 billion shortfall minus a $4.7 billion stimulus? No problem, right?

Not so fast, says Glenn Kuper, a spokesman with Gregoire’s Office of Financial Management. “A lot of that money will come with a lot of strings attached, designated for real specific uses,” he says. “It wouldn’t act as a blank check for us. Obviously, it will be useful and helpful, but we don’t want people to misperceive that we can just use it to close the budget gap and we’ll be done.”

Still, the governor has proposed a $1.2 billion stimulus project of her own, banking on the federal stimulus money. Gregoire’s project would sink over $100 million into Eastern Washington, including renovation and expansion at Spokane’s community colleges and work on the North Spokane Corridor.

Other agencies are lining up for the dough. The Spokane Regional Transportation Council has assembled a wish list that includes bridge work on Bigelow Gulch, Rutter Parkway and Havana Street; replacement of Spokane Transit Authority’s hybrid vehicles; and development of non-motorized projects like the Fish Lake trail and downtown Spokane bike paths. On its list of top-priority street reconstruction goals are 31 projects totaling almost $46.5 million (including Perry Street, Wellesley Avenue and the Maple/Walnut couplet on the South Hill). Street resurfacing calls for $48 million for 35 different projects.

“We’ve been receiving a lot of ideas from local governments with projects they have, and we’ve been keeping a list,” says Kuper.

Marlene Feist, a spokeswoman for the City of Spokane, says the mayor’s office is in the process of culling a final list of projects from those submitted by department heads. Their focus, she says, is on additional projects — not just getting extra funding for stuff they’re already doing. “We wanted to live by the spirit of this thing, which is to create more private sector jobs. The goal here is to spark the economy,” she says.

Among projects Feist says the city is eyeing are swapping motors at pump stations, installing automated sprinklers at city parks, rehabilitating the Iron Bridge near Gonzaga for bike and pedestrian access and possibly building a new two-million-gallon reservoir near Wellesley and Havana.

Still, Feist says, it’s been hard to move forward without specific information about how much money is available and what it can be used for. “Everything’s up in the air,” she says. “What’s the definition of shovel-ready?” Also, she says, there’s no indication of exactly how the money will be routed to local projects. Will they come through the state government? As Community Development Block Grants? As appropriations requests that need to go through Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ office?
The uncertainty, Kuper says, has made it difficult for legislators to go about the process of responding to Gregoire’s budget and address the state’s record shortfall. “They’re making progress, but they can’t feel like they can really solidify anything until they know how much and what kind of money is coming in.”

State Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown agrees that the Legislature is in a kind of holding pattern until more details emerge. “We don’t want to go too far with major programs like the Basic Health Program,” she says. In the meantime, they have passed one smaller belt-tightening budget measure and she expects they’ll pass another. The Legislature has also asked the state economist to deliver its revenue forecast a month early, so they can get a better sense of where exactly the state is financially.

Brown is optimistic about some of the opportunities the stimulus could afford Spokane, particularly in terms of green jobs. But while local governments are anxiously awaiting the final score from Congress, she remains cautious — particularly about what that state economist is going to say.

“It’s great to have a partner in the administration. It has been a while,” she says. “But before people get optimistic and start doing the math, saying, ‘We’re a $1 billion better off [with the stimulus],’ if our revenue is still a billion worse, we’re kind of in the same place.”

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