Friday, December 26, 2008

Show Me the Money: $25 Billion for Michigan?

Don't look now, but there are a bunch of politicians walking around with eyes as big as saucers as they think about spending all that Obama stimulus money. Even though VP-elect Biden proclaims that this won't contain "earmarks" - this is the Unites States Congress we are talking about here, and you have to wonder how they intend to stop the impending figurative fistfights that are going to break out as lawmakers scramble to grab the cash for their struggling states. Charles Ballard, an economist at Michigan State University, estimates that Michigan could receive $25 billion over the next two years, a figure that probably is making some people in Lansing literally tingle at the possibilities contained in that amount.

Send in the professionals. As the past eight years has shown us, no one can spend money like the Republicans, so let's cheer on the Michigan delegation as they enter the ring. Take it away, Candice!

Already, U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township -- one of the state's two members on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee -- is lobbying to create a distribution formula that would benefit Michigan.

She is urging transportation committee Chairman James Oberstar, a key player in designing the transportation part of the stimulus bill, to not allocate money to states based on the traditional highway formula, under which Michigan is a donor state.

Instead, Miller is pushing to have money allocated to states based on economic hardship, such as unemployment and home foreclosure rates.

"If we really are going to have economic stimulus, then it makes most sense to distribute more of the money to states like Michigan that have been hardest hit," said Miller, who has also talked to Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit.

Yes! Yes, it does! And Pete Hoekstra is going to help!

U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Holland, who expects the state to get "a couple hundred million dollars" for roads and bridges alone, said the stimulus bill "really potentially becomes a bailout for the entire state."

So, we already have the money-grabbers on our side. The state is making their lists and checking them twice - and boy oh boy, doesn't $25 billion sound like just the ticket to put a solid base underneath our very shaky state finances. Not only can we begin some much-needed infrastructure projects that will put people to work immediately, we can invest in education, worker training, fill the budget hole, clean up the Lakes, and the biggee that no one really talks about - funding for rapidly growing Medicaid rolls. Whether the "conservatives" like it or not, we are slowly but surely moving towards socialized medicine as employers dump both employees and insurance coverage alike, and people turn to the state for health care needs.

Enrollment in the health plan for the needy is now at 1.6 million residents, after increasing by an average of about 43,000 new people a month during fiscal year 2008. Medicaid gobbles up about one-quarter of the state's general fund.

Based on the figure of up to $70 billion being talked about in the stimulus proposal to help states deal with Medicaid, Michigan's portion could be from $1.2 billion to $2.4 billion, state officials estimate.

Not only will that ease the burden on hospitals struggling with the growing uninsured patient/unpaid debt problem, it will lessen the pressure on climbing insurance rates and create (and retain) jobs in a field that is going to continue to see growth as the population ages.

But I digress. That is just one area where this stimulus will come in very handy, and as everyone knows, it is greatly needed in other areas as well. The state will have the immediate projects ready; the faster they move this money, the quicker we can stop the bleeding and start the healing.

"We are making a list of 'shovel-ready' projects," said Leslie Fritz, spokeswoman for the state budget office.

"We are inventorying everything, not knowing how the money is going to come, in what amount or format. If the first wave of funding comes, and it's for education infrastructure, for example, we know exactly what we've got both at the K-12 level and the community college level ready to roll. So we can move that money as quickly as possible."

The less time spent fighting over it is probably good as well. Would hate to see this get tied-up in endless debates as the pols dash for their districts share of the cash and squabble about how this should be spent. It would be great if President Obama could move his hand directly from the Lincoln Bible to the pen that will sign the package right there on the podium. It won't happen like that, of course, but soon after...

“We’re getting awful close,” Biden said in Washington today before meeting with some of President-elect Barack Obama’s top economic advisers. “We’re all on the same page.”

Think of this as water on the parched earth. It may not grow an instant crop, but we can adequately prepare for growth in the future, if we play our cards right. That will depend on common sense and wisdom from our current crop of lawmakers - wish them luck as they make the sudden shift from poverty to riches, especially here in Michigan. It's going to be a headrush for them to have all this money to play with.