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The Stimulus Teeters on a Lege

Texas continues to collect stimulus funds, but the legislature must be responsible for how those funds are spent.
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Sonograms, voter ID, and now a bill that makes it illegal to discriminate against creationists in schools. If you’re outside the Capitol looking in, the 82nd Texas Legislature is nothing if not memorable. But the sturm and drang over culture-war issues has drowned out some of the more substantive challenges the lawmakers face. One of the least-discussed so far: how best to use federal stimulus money. There won’t be enough to fill the state’s budget gaps this time — as legislators did in 2009 – but the state has at least 18 more months of funds to draw. That’s hundreds of millions for Texas to put to good, or bad, use.

Texas Impact, an interfaith group that focuses on public policy and social justice, just released a report titled “It Ain’t Over ’til It’s Over: The Texas Legislature and the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.” Compiled by a coalition that includes the Center for Public Policy Priorities, Texas Legal Services and Public Citizen, among others, the report points out where ARRA funding is helping the most, and presents cases that demonstrate the need for continued funding.

This should be old news to lawmakers, as they’re already aware of how stimulus money is being spent. Right? Well, considering that a committee was formed in the last session, and a website created, one would hope so. But the Committee on Federal Economic Stabilization disbanded after its chairman, former Rep. Jim Dunnam, lost his seat last November. The Lege also let their website’s domain name, http://www.txstimulus.com, expire in December 2010. Who cared enough to save the domain from dying? That would be Bee Moorhead, head of Texas Impact. The URL now goes directly to TI’s report.

“Texas will keep spending ARRA dollars for at least another 18 months and we could still draw hundreds of millions of dollars more,” Moorhead said in a press release. “Considering the losses of jobs and services that are likely to result from looming state budget cuts, lawmakers should be trying to maximize every penny.”

So what’s in the report? It highlights the good the stimulus funding has done for Texas, and what the Legislature needs to do to make sure those pennies are maximized going forward. A few major points:

 

  • Texas law enforcement agencies received nearly $441 million, of which $1.5 million went to the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program. The program is responsible for 110 arrests since its creation in 2003, and the ARRA grant helped to hire an extra prosecutor, legal assistant and investigator through 2013. But unless the funding can come from elsewhere, these jobs —and the added enforcement muscle they bring—will expire then. Domestic violence programs, such as Violence Against Women programs, also received $9 million in stimulus funds that were used to train new officers and hire new counselors. But with a projected reduction in federal stimulus funding as well as state revenue past 2011, it will mean less resources to devote to a state with the second-highest call volume to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

 

 

  • Texas’ Department of Transportation received $2.5 billion, which was spent on everything from road maintenance and new highway construction to aviation projects and even rail. It might be small in comparison, but San Antonio’s VIA Metropolitan Transit got a TIGGER grant worth $5 million, which it used to replace three diesel-engine buses with ones that run on rechargeable batteries. (The not-so wonderful thing about TIGGERs was that San Antonio’s was the only one.) And according to a TxDOT report, ARRA funding has sustained more than 149,000 jobs. But the report also claims that Texas will have to invest a total of $30 billion through 2030 just to maintain existing infrastructure. If it can’t find a way to do that, we could be looking toward higher unemployment in the future.

 

 

  • Speaking of unemployment, you might remember Governor Rick Perry’s reticence to change the way that the state calculates unemployment benefits, and how it has kept $555 million in federal funds from replenishing the state’s depleted Unemployment Trust Fund. That fund is normally paid for by payroll taxes collected from business owners, whose tax rates have more than doubled in two years. When the state’s jobless rate jumps 85 percent over the course of the recession (December 2007 to December 2010 ) and payroll tax revenue consequently declines, that $555 million begins to look tempting. The good news is that Texas has until August of this year to make changes to the calculation process, and the current legislative session seems like the the right time and place to do it.

 

If ever there was a time to voice an opinion on Texas’ budget problems, that time is now. The Texas Impact report will give you plenty of ammunition. The ARRA might be two years old, but that is no excuse for the House and Senate to forget the impact—and potential future benefit—that the stimulus can bring to the state.