Our view: Help for Alaska

Gov. Palin should put politicking aside and use stimulus funding

February 19, 2009 

Gov. Sarah Palin appears to be focusing on the negative in the just-passed federal stimulus law, and that could hurt Alaskans suffering from the effects of the national recession. Rather than embrace the economic benefits that the $787 billion package is expected to bring, Palin embraced wholesale the congressional Republicans' criticism of the law.

The stimulus money is aimed at helping states, local governments and school districts retain jobs, and to create jobs in the private sector.

Palin said in a press release that she's concerned about "integrating" federal stimulus money in the state operating budget -- and increasing programs that might have to be cut when the federal spending boost ends.

It sounds as if she's hyping a hypothetical problem to burnish her conservative national credentials. She governs a state where one-third of the entire economy depends on federal spending. This year's state budget is already bolstered with $2.6 billion of federal money. Tough talk about spurning federal aid is just that -- talk.

The federal stimulus contains $150 billion over the next two and a half years to give state governments a cushion against drastic cuts. If the states slash spending, real people get hurt and the economy sinks further.

For example, the feds are offering to pay $87 billion more nationally for Medicaid, the government health insurance for the poor, right at a time when more people are losing their jobs and will need help.

Yes, the funding will drop after 2010, but so what? The insurance program, which is administered by states, will be there now, when Alaskans most need it.

Alaska's governments are already in trouble. Due to plunging oil revenues, Palin this week announced a $445.5 million reduction from her earlier state budget proposal (and she'll use federal Medicaid stimulus money to help backfill the cuts). In Anchorage, the stock market crisis late last year pushed city government into the red. The Anchorage School District is looking to trim some programs.

The stimulus funding will help Alaskans get through tough times. It boosts unemployment benefits by $25 per week just through this year. It increases child support enforcement funding to prevent cutbacks and help families get the money they need to survive for the next couple of years. It adds to education money available to states and school districts, with a focus on poor, disabled or disadvantaged students.

These increases come in addition to a pile of money set aside in the stimulus law for building and repairing roads and other public facilities, which will provide jobs in private business.

So why is Gov. Palin such a reluctant recipient?

Republican governors who are not angling to run for president in 2012 are happy to get the money for their states. It makes you wonder if her national political ambitions are leading her one way, when what's best for Alaska leads another.

Instead of casting such a wary eye on the federal help, Gov. Palin would serve the state better by figuring out how to make the federal stimulus funds deliver the maximum possible benefit for Alaskans.

BOTTOM LINE: Gov. Palin shouldn't take a partisan approach to using federal stimulus funding.

No problem

Comeau says the new federal money can be put to good use

In a national speech criticizing the federal economic stimulus, Sen. Lisa Murkowski raised the fear that adding temporary federal money to school programs will force districts to spend their own money to sustain them later.

The senator said an Alaska school superintendent worries his district would be exposed to lawsuits if it started a new service and later couldn't continue it.

He was likely talking about special education funding for students with disabilities -- a field that does generate a lot of lawsuits.

But Anchorage Superintendent Carol Comeau says the situation the senator described can be avoided, and the federal money available to districts through the stimulus bill will give districts a chance to catch up.

"We have been underfunded for so long," she said.

The Anchorage district anticipates receiving $12.9 million from the stimulus bill for Title I programs, serving poor and disadvantaged children; and another $12.9 million for special education.

But half the special education money can be used for other federal entitlement programs, such as drug-free school programs, more help for students learning English and the Title I programs, Comeau said.

One idea she's interested in is establishing more district pre-schools for Title I kids.

As for the money to be added to special education programs -- it can be used for professional training, to buy computerized communication devices for students, to give incentives to special education staff to get them to stay in their jobs, she said.

"We think we can make very good use of this and not get obligated later."

If the money dries up in two years, Comeau says, "We will see what is working. Then we will make some decisions on what we want to incorporate into our general fund programs -- and take the rest away."

It's not helpful to talk about refusing stimulus money over fears it will create future unfunded burdens.

BOTTOM LINE: So where's the harm in accepting this temporary federal money?

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