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$290 million expected for W.Va.

Stimulus
Feb. 16, 2009 @ 10:12 PM

It may sound like a nice problem for states -- figuring out how to spend the billions in infrastructure funding they'll receive as part of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan.

But the task is more complicated than it seems, as state officials try to set priorities while managing competing pressures from communities, watchdog groups and federal regulators over how the money is allocated.

Under the plan Obama is expected to sign into law early this week, states will divide $27 billion to build and repair roads and bridges. That is less than half the $64 billion in projects states told the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials late last year that they had ready to go.

West Virginia will receive $290.4 million for infrastructure projects. That's the 10th largest amount per capita among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Ohio will receive $1.335 billion (39th per capita) and Kentucky will get $521.1 million (34th per capita).

The law requires that half the money be spent on projects that have been vetted by the federal government and deemed "ready to go" in 120 days, as a way to jolt the economy and create jobs. That means state officials are under pressure to make decisions quickly on which projects to fund and which to bypass.

Mindful of the accelerated timetable they face, states are moving quickly to develop mechanisms for identifying priority projects and disbursing funding for them.

Some have created oversight commissions while others are leaving decisions to state transit officials. Some are required by law to involve state legislators, while legislators in states that don't require their participation are pressing to have input.

West Virginia House Speaker Rick Thompson said he plans to appoint a special committee to oversee the expected influx of federal dollars, which he estimated at $1.5 billion, including the infrastructure funds and other allocations.

The committee would also determine what, if any, role the Legislature would have in parceling out the federal funds.

Matt Turner, spokesman for Gov. Joe Manchin, said Monday that state officials are still trying to figure out what the bill means for West Virginia.

"This is a big bill and it's going to take a few days to get a handle on it," he said. "We have to determine how much money will be coming to the state and the communities, as well as the criteria and rules for spending it. The requirements are something we're going to continue to learn about in the days to come."

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, has retained a former U.S. diplomat as a temporary, unpaid "infrastructure czar." But the Republican-controlled state Senate, concerned that Strickland could try to push stimulus funding through the state's Controlling Board instead of through the legislature, has drawn up a separate "spending blueprint" for the federal stimulus money.

While some states have made their lists of "ready-to-go" infrastructure projects available online for public review, others have resisted, in part because the limited stimulus funding means only a fraction of the projects will receive money.

In California, for example, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office rejected a request by The Associated Press for a detailed list of "ready-to-go" projects. The AP sought the information under the California Public Records Act, but the governor's office last week said the documents were internal drafts, adding "disclosure would chill critical communications to and within the Governor's Office, thereby harming the public interest."

The sheer volume of money directed toward state projects has fueled calls for transparency, with journalists, interest groups and others demanding a full accounting of which projects receive the funding, which are rejected, and why.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick addressed that sentiment last week when he named a local real estate developer to oversee bidding for the stimulus money. Patrick also set up a new Web site with information on every project that receives the money.

In Virginia, Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, is taking a grass-roots approach, setting up a Web site seeking input from residents, local governments and community groups as to how the money should be spent. Nearly 600 suggestions poured in on the first day alone, state officials said.

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