Shopaholic, the sequel
Wed February 18, 2009 5:55 pm

The state’s Republican leadership appears to be warming up to the $17 billion in federal stimulus money, Gov. Rick Perry’s voluble aversion notwithstanding. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who breakfasted today with Perry and House Speaker Joe Straus, gave some insight about the leadership’s thinking to reporters in remarks after today’s session. He says there appear to be “fewer strings” attached than “at first blush.”

And after, noting how handy the extra cash might be for covering the $27 million price tag to renovate the Governor’s Mansion, Dewhurst observed: “All money is fungible.”

Here’s my translation: Although the feds did put some limits on what the money will cover, the Texas Legislature can use  the fed’s money for the boring stuff in the budget like Medicaid,  education and highways, freeing up its General Revenue Fund to cover more fun items – say, a burned down mansion’s renovation, or even to “replenish the Emerging Technology Fund and the Enterprise Fund.”

I predict we’ll see that Republicans like shopping just as much as Democrats. And with best estimates placing Texas’s share of the stimulus package at $17 billion – that’s 10 percent over the $171 billion base bill for this session – nobody is talking anymore about spending the Rainy Day Fund. It’s raining federal money.

Perry, Dewhurst, Senate Finance Chair Steve Ogden, State Rep. Jim Dunnam (who is chairing a select committee on the federal stimulus package) are poring over fine print and asking for guidance from everyone from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to state agency executives. Here is a breakdown assembled by the Legislative Budget Board:

– Health and Human Services: $5.8 billion (most to Medicaid).

– Education: $6.2 billion, which includes $3.9 billion in “state fiscal stabilization funds.” According to the LBB’s analysis, $.7 billion “may be used by the Governor for public safety and other government services.” I’m starting to see why Perry might decide the stimulus package is not so bad after all.

– Transportation: $2.8 billion, including $2.3 billion for highway and bridge construction. This money must be spent pronto, according to the LBB:  ”State and local entities must obligate 50 percent of the funds within 120 days of enactment and the other half within one year of enactment of the legislation.”

– Labor: $1 billion, for workforce training and unemployment insurance.

– Criminal Justice: $161 million, mostly for equipment, operations and salaries for law enforcement.

–Housing and Infrastructure: $975.1 million, to pay for energy efficiencies in government buildings, drinking water infrastructure, weatherization assistance.

Perry, Dewhurst and Ogden have said they want to be careful to not spend federal money in a way that commits future state budgets. But advocates like the Center for Public Policy Priorities believe the Legislature should use the stimulus to improve “Texas’ broken eligibility system” and provide “12-month continuous coverage of children on Medicaid.”  I’m not sure if Ogden, et al, consider that a change that commits future Legislatures, but I wouldn’t expect Judith Zaffirini to go down without a fight on this issue.

Given that timetables are already running on some of the programs, Dunnam wrote Perry a letter urging him to make a quick decision about tapping into the stimulus – or to delegate the responsibility to the Legislature. “It’s fully appropriate” for the Legislature to make the request, Dunnam said, if that’s what it takes to make sure Texas’ share doesn’t end up in California.

Dunnam says his committee’s biggest challenge will be providing accountability and transparency and coordination, as lots of public institutions and local entities are counting on money from the stimulus legislation. I get it: shopping can be exhausting.

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