As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Bigger, Faster, Stronger, Cleaner: Post-Sprawl, Post-Downturn Economics

Five top Democratic governors have called for a larger stimulus package than is presently being called for in Washington, precisely to fill in the gaps created by a loss of tax revenue in the states.

To help offset state budget cuts, a group of Democratic governors urged the federal government Friday to pass a $1 trillion economic stimulus package, significantly larger than the one under discussion in Congress.

The package would help states compensate for cuts to education spending that could cause long-term economic decline, as well as bolster infrastructure projects and benefits programs for the poor, the governors from New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio and Wisconsin said in a news conference [...]

The governors recommended that the stimulus plan include $350 billion for infrastructure, including transportation, wastewater and broadband projects; $250 billion for anti-poverty programs such as Medicaid, unemployment insurance, food stamps and child care; $250 billion in flexible education spending to maintain funding for programs from pre-kindergarten to higher education; and middle-class tax cuts.

The money, disbursed over two years, would offset cuts needed to balance state budgets and would serve as a "bridge" until 2011, by which time the governors hope the economy will have recovered, said Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick.

Predictably, the Republican Governor's Association called it a "bailout" of the general funds of the various states.

Well, yes. The states, by and large, did not have the ability to get out from under the financial meltdown, and the consequent economic downturn that resulted shouldn't disproportionately affect the least of their citizens. Furthermore, given that the road to recovery is massive fiscal stimulus, having states cutting back on spending at this time, be it infrastructure, education or healthcare, is completely counterproductive and will do nothing but prolong the agony.

In the future, it will take more than backfilling state budget cuts in a downturn, but a more structured system, like a "Federal Infrastructure Finance Corporation," to ensure that state assets aren't sold off to private interests during a downturn. The days of creative borrowing and the crossing of fingers are over. We need new structures to manage economic volatility and avoid fiscal traps, PARTICULARLY in California, where the tax system too closely mirrors the boom and bust cycle.

In the near term, I imagine something like this will pass. Barack Obama today put out a call for "strategic investments" to create jobs and improve the long-term economic outlook simultaneously. The question locally is whether California's plans will actually accomplish that. CalPIRG is criticizing the state's wish list, saying that it relies too much on increasing highway and road capacity and not enough on cleaner energy investments:

The California Public Interest Research Group reports that the state plans to spend 31% of road money on creating new capacity instead of addressing long-deferred maintenance and repair projects. By contrast, the group said, Massachusetts would commit 100% of its road funds to repairs.

"We can't afford to waste precious resources on new highways at the expense of ready-to-go projects to repair and maintain existing roads and bridges and expand public transportation," said spokeswoman Erin Steva.

The group also faulted the California Department of Transportation's list, saying that only 37% of the funds would flow to public transportation. The group called for a higher percentage, citing the record ridership on California's mass transit systems, which have been hit by severe cutbacks in recent years. The proposed percentage is less than what is being planned in Tennessee, Wisconsin and Massachusetts, CALPIRG said.

It is elemental that the stimulus spending cannot prop up an unsustainable growth model based on sprawl. Experts up and down the state understand this, and one of the best examples is in this Merced Sun-Star editorial, which nicely explains the tension between speed and smarts:

The problem for the planners is that the stimulus must be geared toward putting people to work as fast as possible. That, many believe, argues for the traditional sort of public works, such as highways.

In many cases, plans are already in place to replace crumbling roads, highways and bridges. By contrast, plans for urban transit systems and intercity high-speed rail are less firm, meaning it may take more time to actually start turning dirt and generating paychecks [...]

We're confident that a solution exists that puts people to work right away and also lays the groundwork for a new approach to the nation's transportation needs.

It won't be easy, but it has to happen. We can't continue to simply build more transportation infrastructure on a model that's now more than a half-century old.

A new model for transportation is part of the change we need.

Read the whole thing. One good idea calls for phased stimulus spending, giving enough for critical highway and road repairs at the start, with the bulk coming later for transit and rail projects.

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