While other states use stimulus funds to think ahead, it’s more of the same in Texas.
Sometimes you can tell a lot from a Web site. After the Feb. 17 passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, many states set up interactive, informative sites to open dialogue about creative ways to use their stimulus money. Just the address of Missouri’s, transform.mo.gov, packs a punch. Visitors to recovery.ca.gov are greeted by a video of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger saying, “We are looking forward to this money.” Ohio invites proposals for using the money, promising that those meeting eligibility requirements will receive information on when, where, and how to apply. By mid-April, more than 24,000 ideas had flooded in.
The Buckeye site is decorated with idyllic images of tree-lined, small-town streets. “That is not what Ohio actually looks like,” says Bee Moorhead, the Ohio-born executive director of the faith-based progressive lobbying group Texas Impact. “That’s what it wants to be. People don’t really think about the kind of state Texas could be anymore.”
From the outset, Texas’ stimulus site-and the state’s process for figuring out how to spend its $16 billion-confirmed that. The message: Don’t pester us with newfangled ideas. Until being retouched in mid-April, the Texas Comptrollers’ site offered little more than a link to a spreadsheet breaking down the funds, with a headline declaring a commitment to “Tracking the Texas Stimulus” as though it were a hurricane or a criminal on the loose.
The site now has a flashy portal displaying essentially the same message, “A Texas Eye on the Dollars,” along with a video starring Comptroller Susan Combs. Far from conveying Schwarzenegger-like eagerness, Combs says, “In the age of the Internet, there is seldom a good reason why government can’t keep citizens informed about how tax dollars are spent.”
With the comptroller eyeing the stimulus suspiciously, and Gov. Rick Perry using it to bolster his small-government credentials, explaining all things stimulus has largely fallen to one legislator, Rep. Jim Dunnam. The Waco Democrat chairs the House Committee on Federal Economic Stabilization, created to figure out how to use the money. (The state Senate didn’t bother to name a stimulus committee.) Dunnam registered his own site, txstimulusfund.com, managed by Paddington Media, which specializes in Democratic campaign sites. Dispelling any hopes of a productive bipartisan effort, the site’s “Meet the Members” page contains only pictures of Democratic committee members. The public is invited to participate only by reporting “fraud, waste, abuse or mismanagement of federal funds.”
The sites neatly symbolize the lack of foresight Texas has shown in putting those billions to work. Outside of legislative committee hearings, the only opportunities for public input came in March, when Dunnam’s committee held “town hall” meetings in Arlington and San Antonio. Just 400 Texans showed up, many of them Arlingtonians prompted by an automated message from Perry encouraging them to support his rejection of $555 million in federal unemployment insurance money (see “The Governor’s Job Con,” April 17).
If the stimulus was intended, as President Barack Obama said in April, to “lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity,” Texas has mostly used it to plug budget gaps, paying for existing programs without dipping into the state’s Rainy Day Fund. (See “Gaming the Kids,” p. 4.) When the House passed its version of the budget in April, Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, proudly declared that it “uses the federal stimulus dollars wisely to ensure the funds are spent on one-time expenditures that will not result in ongoing costs to the state and leaves the Rainy Day Fund untouched.” There’s your new foundation, Texas.
The last time the state was looking at a similar infusion of cash, with $15 billion from the national tobacco settlement in 1998, the Comptroller’s Office flirted with a visionary idea: Use all the money to build out every temporary public-school building in the state. That would have created construction jobs while tackling educational disparities across the state.
It didn’t happen then, and it’s not happening now. This time, there’s no comparable idea that might leave a lasting mark on the state. A plan by Rep. Mark Strama, an Austin Democrat, has the most promise, using stimulus funds to set up public-private partnerships offering green jobs training. Strama’s proposal would also reserve 20 percent of the weatherization funds in the stimulus for individuals living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
Strama hopes his program will help Texas compete for another cache of federal energy-efficiency money that’s up for grabs. Just weeks after the stimulus bill passed, Maryland began holding grant-application workshops to help local governments win the competitive funds. California and Florida have also held seminars. Texas has not.
In an all-day, all-night session in mid-April, the House approved funding for Strama’s plan, as well as Houston Democrat Sylvester Turner’s proposal to use stimulus funds to expand Medicaid, contingent on the bills passing in both chambers. Another House bill would create a Texas Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board to encourage public-private partnerships to use stimulus funds. Rep. Yvonne Davis, a Dallas Democrat, added an amendment forcing Gov. Perry to accept the unemployment insurance funds before he gets money for his pet Texas Enterprise Fund, which doles out business incentives that critics view as giveaways.
The House measures still have to survive the final budget process, in which the two legislative chambers hammer out compromises on their respective bills. Then the bills will land on the desk of a stimulus-wary governor, needing his signature before becoming law.
Creative thinkers like Moorhead have been disappointed by state leaders who view the $16 billion as either “big government” excess or a budgetary bandage. She says she had dreamed that teen parents would get training for green jobs while their kids were in stimulus-funded math and science programs. “Texas could do this,” she says, “and we’d have whole families ready for a whole new economy.” Now she just hopes the House’s last-minute flurry will give Texas a little stimulus along with a lot of status quo.