Recovery 101 

The stimulus has begun in Idaho

The recovery in Idaho has already begun.

Promises of $1 billion in stimulus generated $5.47 billion in ideas from cities, counties, school districts and Idaho entrepreneurs, not to mention significant billions more in brainstorming at most state agencies.

The Obama administration, which has now met with Idaho's governor, schools chief, nominal top CEO (Steve Appleton), and maybe some state Democrats, though that's a stretch, has inspired the biggest flood of spending optimism to hit the state since at least the last Farm Bill or major grant to the Idaho National Laboratory.

Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter, who initially opposed the $787.2 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (estimated to create 17,000 new jobs in Idaho), laid out a tight time frame for stimulus proposals in the state, seated a committee to review and recommend proposals and made all of the information public and easily accessible in a matter of weeks.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna flew to Washington, D.C., with other state supers to meet with Vice President Joe Biden and came back full of ideas for spending some $301 million in education funding flowing to Idaho.

And Micron CEO Steve Appleton reportedly bumped into Barack Obama some months ago and has since put together an out-of-the-box proposal to convert mothballed microchip fabrication plants in Boise into solar and LED light manufacturing facilities.

Micron asked Otter to apply for up to $100 million in stimulus money for the project on its behalf.

Micron's project, one of 1,093 non-state agency projects stacked up at Idaho's Division of Financial Management, conforms to Otter's order: Send me a proposal if you "believe" you are eligible.

Everyone believes they are eligible, but nobody really knows, yet.

Promises of transparency from the federal level down have not really materialized. The uber-Web 2.0 site recovery.gov has little information for the lowly mayor, rural principal or basement inventor who just wants to find out what gravy is coming to him or her. Grants.gov, which promises to be a clearinghouse for billions of dollars in stimulus funds, has only one grant available and it's a big tease. Several national associations and think tanks have parsed and reparsed the numbers but have not translated them into news you can use.

Perhaps it is more difficult to give away $787 billion than it seemed.

Obviously, Micron and the hundreds of Central Idaho sewer projects and lighting projects and sidewalk projects feel like they ought to qualify. The lady who wants Obama to pay her credit card bill and the guy who wants the feds to buy him a new tractor believe they qualify, too.

But these proposals—the bulk of which will not be funded in this first round of state fiscal stabilization funding over which Otter has authority—show something else.

The Micron ask is a prime example— it shows the otherwise secretive company's cards (transparency), creates goodwill in a community increasingly fed up with excuses and layoffs and it demonstrates that in a short month, the nation has taken Obama's alternative energy message seriously.

Solar and wind projects dominate the list of non-state agency requests, and even the state's Office of Energy Resources is getting into the game with proposals for energy efficiency and solar paneling at school buildings across the state.

But here's the thing: Most of the $1 billion flowing to Idaho from the bill is already spoken for. Almost a third goes to public schools. The Department of Health and Welfare will control maybe $500 million more. Presumably, state agencies and municipalities will have some priority over the guy who wants a new tractor, or Appleton.

There is the $44.9 million general-purpose fiscal stabilization funding, but that could also go toward plugging holes in Otter's budget.

Some of the money that companies could be eligible for will flow through agencies like Energy Resources, which gets a $20 million to $30 million windfall, or Commerce, which is looking at $2.3 million of block grant money.

But state agencies already have their own plans for those bucks.

However, Otter only controls a small chunk of recovery money. While $223 billion is being distributed through the states and $288 billion goes toward tax relief, there are still hundreds of billions more that federal agencies get to spend on their own.

So lots of the grant proposals sitting on Otter's desk may be eligible for funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture or other agencies.

But those agencies have a few more weeks to solidify their processes for doling it out, so keep checking their Web sites. Most agencies have a "recovery" in their domain names now, and a growing number of states do as well.

Otter has pulled together a bipartisan committee of former governors and budget directors to review the Idaho requests and advise him by March 19.

The committee includes Republican Gov. Phil Batt, former Democrat Govs. Cecil Andrus and John Evans, former Republican administrators of the state Division of Financial Management Mike Brassey, Brian Whitlock and Jeff Malmen, and former Democratic DFM administrators Marty Peterson and Darrell Manning.

While Batt, a farmer, and Evans, a banker, have enjoyed fairly quiet retirements, Andrus is an adviser at Gallatin Public Affairs, a regional and federal lobbying firm with clients across many sectors. Brassey is a lobbyist for insurance companies, rental cars, Idaho Power parent Idacorp, railroads and St. Luke's. Whitlock is a spokesman for the National Lab and a registered lobbyist for a company that provides services to the lab.

Malmen lobbies for Idaho Power, and his wife is also a registered lobbyist whose main client is Areva, which is building a uranium enrichment plant near Idaho Falls. Peterson lobbies for the University of Idaho, and Manning is chairman of the Idaho Transportation Board.

It's a knowledgeable group, with no shortage of strings attached. But with the limited wiggle room Otter has for out-of-the-box funding, their job may be easier than it seems.

But like we said, the state stimulus certification process is just the beginning. Companies like Micron that get face time with Obama and folks like the guys who want some cash to design or install solar panels in their communities will get more opportunities to reshape the state's economy, spurred by the stimulus bill.

And if the government handout doesn't come through, there's always the old-fashioned way. Borrow it from the propped up banks and take a risk.

That's what Obama and Congress just did, after all. Handing out political capital old school style—a Benjamin at a time—making the people smile.

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