Protesters tell Palin to take stimulus funds

FULL HOUSE: Legislators get an earful at packed Loussac Library.

March 21, 2009 

Dozens of protesters held signs Saturday criticizing Gov. Sarah Palin for turning away federal economic stimulus money they said is vital for education and other services for Alaskans.

"Mama Grizzly, you forgot your cub," said one sign.

"We need a governor, not a presidential candidate," said another.

The protesters staged the demonstration outside the Loussac Library, where Anchorage area state legislators met to hear from constituents.

Many asked for money to fund building projects, or urged passage of particular bills.

But the dominant issue was Palin's purported rejection of $288 million, or 31 percent of the $931 million the state is eligible to receive under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Palin supporters and her budget director, Karen Rehfeld, said the bluster over the governor's stance on the stimulus money is somewhat misplaced.

In fact, the administration hasn't yet rejected a single dollar of the stimulus funding, Rehfeld said in an interview from Juneau on Saturday.

She sent an e-mail Friday to all legislators promising that state agencies "will continue to complete the necessary paperwork and applications and meet the specific deadlines" to collect all the stimulus money pending a public debate on whether to keep it.

Last week, Palin voiced concerns about accepting the money if it means swelling government programs and obligating the state to keep up the funding once the federal dollars run out in two years.

Palin raised the notion of hiring more teachers, only to lay them off later. She also said some of the federal money has strings attached, such as the state having to adopt and police uniform building codes if it accepts energy efficiency money.

Palin also mentioned the nation's multitrillion-dollar debt, saying, "We can't keep digging this hole."

Some Democrats have accused the Republican governor, who ran for vice president last year and could be a presidential candidate in 2012, of turning away the stimulus money to raise her star with conservatives.

Palin aides and supporters, however, say she just wants a good public discussion -- a "timeout," as Palin called it Thursday -- on the merits of taking certain money related to schools, energy programs and social services.

The governor already has signaled she'll accept hundreds of millions of dollars for road construction and other projects she considers to be true economic stimulants.

Nearly everyone who testified at Saturday's hearing urged the lawmakers to do what they can to snag all the stimulus dollars.

Legislators have the power to seek any money that Palin rejects, though the governor retains veto power on whatever projects the legislators try to fund.

On Friday two state senators, Republican Bert Stedman of Sitka and Democrat Hollis French of Anchorage, introduced a resolution saying the Legislature "certifies the state's acceptance of all funds that may be available."

Deanna Youngren, a special education teacher at Hanshew Middle School, told legislators the students need the federal dollars.

"I'm really concerned that our governor has chosen to pander to her political pipe dream as opposed to ..." Applause in the Anchorage Assembly chamber, filled beyond capacity, drowned out the rest of her statement.

Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau also spoke in favor of the state accepting federal stimulus dollars for education.

"I can assure you, we know what to do with short-term money," she told the lawmakers.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said Palin "got some really bad advice" on the stimulus money.

"She's seeing strings attached that really don't exist," he said.

Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, said he wants more details on what the state is getting into if it takes all the stimulus money.

"I'm not interested in creating bigger government or funding we can't afford to in the future," he said.

Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, chairs the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee, where much of the debate will occur on the stimulus issue. While April 3 is the general deadline for the nation's governors to "certify" whether they'll seek stimulus dollars, state agencies face a variety of other deadlines, Meyer said.

Meyer said he met with Rehfeld on Friday and was told state commissioners will apply for all the money by the appropriate deadlines. Then the debate can begin on whether to turn any of it back.

"I don't think we need to panic," Meyer said.

Find Wesley Loy online at adn.com/contact/wloy or call 257-4590.

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