National Press Club

Stimulus Spotlight Turns to Governors, Panelists Say

February 20, 2009 | By Micayla Diener | mdiener@press.org

From the moment that President Obama was sworn in on Jan. 20 until he signed the $787 billion economic recovery package into law on Feb. 17, the stimulus spotlight shined on him and Congress as the behemoth bill rapidly worked its way through the legislative process.

Now the focus turns to governors, who will be under pressure to spend the money efficiently and wisely. Fulfilling that mandate will require an unprecedented emphasis on transparency and cooperation between state and local government, according to experts who participated in a Feb. 19 Newsmaker.

In a sign of the continuing high media interest in the stimulus package, the event filled the Zenger Room. The Newsmaker was co-sponsored with the Regional Reporters Association.

The challenge for governors will be to stay on top of billions of dollars coming their way for everything from transportation projects to welfare and health care payments. And they will have to work closely with colleagues at the county and local level to disburse the funding.

“What’s really critical now is an intergovernmental partnership,” said Michael Bird, federal affairs counsel for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Different levels of government will have to mesh to ensure that the massive stimulus funding conforms to the transparency rules included in the bill, according to John Thomasian, director of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices.

“This is going to bring government sectors together as much as anything,” Thomasian said.

Communicating directly with the public also is paramount for governors.

“They’re going to need a sophisticated Web presence,” Thomasian said.

But not all the details of how the stimulus bill will work have been fleshed out, despite a 62-page guideline issued by the Office of Management and Budget and timelines that have been posted at Recovery.org.

Counties around the country have long rosters of projects that are “shovel-ready,” but they don’t know yet how to apply for stimulus funding, said Edwin Rosado, legislative director for the National Association of Counties.

“One of the big questions is, how do you get the money?” Rosado said. “That’s one of the questions we have. Those (project) lists need to be taken to the right place.”

Another lingering question is what happens if a governor refuses to accept the stimulus money. Some state executives may be leery of committing to spending with stimulus money that they will then have to maintain when the stimulus runs out. Governors have 45 days, starting on Feb. 17, to certify that they will use stimulus dollars.

Even if a governor hesitates, Bird said that the state legislature is likely to step in and assert its will.

“Somebody in the state is going to take the stimulus money,” Bird said.

“If they don’t take all of it, they’ll take some of it.”