OPINION: Politics of stimulus money heads for airing in 2010 campaign

JACKSON – It will become clearer in the coming months whether the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was good for the nation and its economic revival.
And it assuredly will be a major campaign issue during the 2010 elections.
Republicans continue to belittle the massive federal stimulus program, which was passed during the opening days of Barack Obama’s presidency to jump-start an economy that some experts said was bordering on a depression the likes of which we have not seen since the 1930s.
One thing is for sure: The stimulus package, as it is commonly called, helped the state avoid massive cuts and layoffs. Legislative budget negotiators and Gov. Haley Barbour plugged more than one-half billion dollars in stimulus funds into the budget for the fiscal year that started July 1.
In the end, the amount of stimulus funds propping up the budget for the current fiscal year could be significantly more than $500 million, and you can look for Barbour and legislative leaders to use a similar amount of federal stimulus funds during the 2010 session.
And yes, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, who is now running for the U.S. Congress in Mississippi’s 1st District on a platform that includes criticism of the stimulus package, was involved in the process of plugging into the state budget those federal dollars.
Nunnelee and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant were at the very core of negotiations that resulted in using the stimulus funds to fill state budget holes.
No doubt, Nunnelee realized it would be easier to run for Congress while blasting the stimulus package, even though he used those funds liberally in developing a state budget, than it would have been to run for Congress while being known as one of the legislative leaders who cut Medicaid services, education funding and other services.
Without those stimulus funds, massive cuts would have occurred. Teachers would have been laid off and university leaders would have had no choice but to increase tuition.
Without the stimulus package, real Medicaid cuts would have occurred, resulting in a loss of services for the elderly, disabled and poor pregnant women and children.
Nunnelee, Barbour and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, all critical of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, can argue that while they opposed the stimulus package, it would have been irresponsible for them to refuse the funds designated for Mississippi and allow that money to go to other states.
They could argue it would be of no constructive use to refuse those funds once they were passed by the federal Congress and signed into law by Obama.
They would be right – in my humble opinion. It would have been equivalent to a man refusing food for his starving family because he disliked the person offering the food.
But the next question they need to answer is, would they have rather cut vital state services than to see the stimulus package pass Congress and be signed into law by the president?
What would be their choice – a federal stimulus package or massive cuts in the state budget?
All – Bryant, Barbour and Nunnelee – ran for office promising that the Adequate Education Program would be fully funded, no questions asked. As late as December, in the midst of the economic downturn, Bryant said fully funding the Adequate Education Program, which provides the basics of operating local school districts, was one of his top legislative priorities.
Because of declining state revenue, Barbour cut the Adequate Education Program last year and those funds were never restored. So last year, Barbour, Nunnelee and Bryant did not keep their campaign promise.
If not for stimulus package funds, that promise could not be kept for the current year. Or it if was kept without stimulus package funds, it would have meant other state agencies would have had to sustain massive cuts.
The question for Barbour, Bryant and Nunnelee is not why they were they willing to use stimulus funds once they were passed into law, but what would they have cut if those stimulus dollars were not approved by Congress.
Would they have been able to keep campaign promises without those federal funds, and if so, how?

Contact Capitol Bureau Chief Bobby Harrison at bharrison@djournal.com or at (601) 353-3119.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal