Palin wants discussion on stimulus funds

STIMULUS FUNDS: $288 million that Palin said she wouldn't ask for is still open for discussion.

March 20, 2009 

A day after she said no to nearly a third of the federal stimulus money offered Alaska, Gov. Sarah Palin looked to deliver a message Friday: The money is still on the table.

To hear Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell tell it, Palin's decision to refuse the money -- including $171.5 million for Alaska schools -- was more about calling timeout on a hasty spending process than flat-out rejecting the cash.

"We want to have the public discussion on what do we do in two years when all of this money is gone," Parnell told reporters.

But that's not what many school administrators heard. They stand to lose millions for special education and schools that serve the poorest students if the Legislature doesn't push to get the money.

"We would have liked to be part of the discussion on the front end," said Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau. "But we had no idea this was going to happen."

Palin announced on Thursday that she wouldn't ask for $288 million of the $931 million the state is eligible for under the federal stimulus plan. That could have left the state out of money for schools, energy assistance and social services.

Critics slammed the governor's announcement, with Democrats saying Palin wants to impress conservative voters in the Lower 48, in hopes of running for president in 2012. The director of the Food Bank of Alaska wrote lawmakers telling them she's "appalled" at the news and that the agency stands to lose $2 million.

The stimulus money only lasts for two years, and injecting it in the state operating budget could put Alaska on the hook for programs or employees it can't afford when the federal money dries up, Palin's team argues.

Comeau says Palin could have told schools, food banks and social service groups about those fears long before announcing she wasn't asking for the money.

"We didn't get any of those signals," she said.

Palin budget director Karen Rehfeld said the governor's office wasn't able to inform all of the groups who would have been receiving money. "I appreciate that there would be strong reaction. ... And would hope that as they learn more about the governor's intention that they will help us work through it."

Comeau and acting Anchorage Mayor Matt Claman called a press conference Friday morning criticizing Palin's stand. The governor's decision was a mistake and the Legislature needs to correct it, they said.

Parnell showed up too, telling reporters that the fate of the stimulus money hasn't been decided yet.

In order for Alaska to get all the stimulus money, the Legislature must pass a resolution asking for it. That means a public discussion about how the money will be spent, which Parnell said is what Palin wanted.

Some lawmakers are on board with that.

"Our job is really to see if we concur with the governor. If there are strings attached, and if we still want to take the money or not," said Rep. Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River.

Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, said it's a tough decision. "You don't want to turn away money that is going to be helpful to Alaska," he said. At the same time the money needs to be spent wisely, he said. "You've got to recognize that this money ... it comes from other people's back pockets."

But it's Palin's team that builds the budgets, said Rep. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage. He said Palin's decision to question money for things like weatherization of homes following a winter's worth of costly energy bills doesn't make sense.

"The only thing I can think of that has changed is that (Palin) may still be harboring hopes of being the Republican presidential nominee in 2012."

Parnell rejected the notion that political ambitions played a role in the governor's decision. "I spent hours with her and her staff on this and I never heard mention of it. ... I think her motives are very pure in serving Alaskans in this."

Anchorage Assemblyman Chris Birch said he wants assurances that the cash doesn't cost the city in the long run.

"Sometimes when you hire people in some of these positions, they cannot really be terminated or eliminated without a lot of problems. I would just want to take a real close look at what's being offered and what's being provided," he said.

Claman said that the city wouldn't be obligated to continue programs it started with stimulus money. Comeau and other superintendents said they planned to spend the federal money in ways that wouldn't balloon their budgets in the future.

"We clearly, clearly recognize that it's going away in two years," Comeau said. "That's what's frustrating to me, because ... the idea that we would just make the assumption as educators and School Board members that we would expect the state Legislature to pick up automatically any of the funds that weren't continuing, I think is wrong."

"We go through this every time we get a grant, or a special program starts," she said.

Anchorage-area lawmakers are meeting at the Loussac Library this morning, where protesters have organized a rally calling for them to restore the money.