By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 2, 2009
CLEVELAND -- Perfect, the Cuyahoga County commissioners thought. Here they were, trying to score $28 million in federal stimulus money to build wind turbines on Lake Erie, when word arrived that Barack Obama was jetting into town on the eve of his inauguration.
Not only would he be talking about the economic crisis and the benefits of green energy, but he would do it at a factory that produces turbine components in the suburb of Bedford Heights. Two commissioners scrambled to deliver a pitch to the next president but only got close enough to slip an information packet to an aide.
The vast sums of stimulus money due to flow soon from the federal treasury are designed to create jobs by improving streets and schoolrooms, building broadband lines and electricity grids, and strengthening health care and social services. Much of the money will go straight to state governments according to long-standing Washington formulas.
But billions more are unclaimed, prompting politicians, executives and interest groups across the nation to jockey for their share of the gold rush. A Republican here called it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
In Ohio, everyone who knows anyone in Washington or Columbus is picking up the telephone. Lobbyists are knocking on doors to request money for purposes as diverse as sewers and mortgage relief. Gov. Ted Strickland (D) called Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and the president's economic adviser, Lawrence H. Summers.
When Obama visited Bedford Heights on Jan. 16, Strickland had better luck than the Cuyahoga commissioners, who had figured a good word from the incoming president could get them their turbines. Strickland was fortunate enough to command Obama's attention for several precious minutes, and he used the time to talk about getting money, especially for education.
"There are lots of decision-makers in this, lots of people with different emphases, different priorities," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). "We're working on the Obama people and the Harry Reid people and the Nancy Pelosi people."
Ohio is banking on a combination of its political importance and its deep needs to corral stimulus money. It was no coincidence that Obama chose the prominent battleground state to make a campaign-like trip only four days before he assumed the presidency.
The state has lost more than 100,000 jobs in the past year. With tax revenue dropping and demands on government growing, the state cannot pay for all the services the legislature and governor authorized, including health care and road projects, and has already cut nearly $1.9 billion from the current budget.
Strickland projects a deficit of $7.3 billion in the next two-year budget. Working with other Democratic governors, he has sought $250 billion for education, particularly to prevent deep staff cuts, as well as money to help meet rising Medicaid costs.
In a budget proposal that Strickland will make today, he projects that Ohio will receive $3.4 billion for emergency fiscal relief, including Medicaid and education funding. The sum does not include anticipated federal infrastructure dollars.
Brown and Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) are pressing their colleagues on Capitol Hill to give "great weight" to unemployment and foreclosure rates, contending that the economic crisis is affecting states unequally.
Brown is also seeking heavy investment in water and sewer projects. In a letter to Obama, he cited an Environmental Protection Agency study that identified $20 billion in needs in Ohio alone, including $6 billion to upgrade sewage systems that overflow during heavy rains, sending a cascade of wastewater and storm runoff into rivers, streams and lakes.
As Congress and the White House work on the $800 billion-plus cocktail of tax cuts and spending increases, the maneuvering is underway back home in anticipation of the money's arrival.
"I've had a hundred e-mails from every little university that wants new windows," said Ronald Richards, appointed as the state's "infrastructure czar" by Strickland to review bids for the federal dollars that are routed through the governor's office.
Strickland and his staff have spent weeks broadcasting the arrival of stimulus money and seeking advice from public and private interests about how to spend it. He invited more than a dozen business executives to the governor's residence in December, and he convened a meeting of his cabinet and legislative leaders to talk strategy with Richards.
"The challenge is: Can you do things that get the money out fast and are really thoughtful?" Richards said in an interview. "My role is to put a process in place."
Richards will have no shortage of supplicants.
For Cuyahoga, it's the wind proposal on Lake Erie, in keeping with Obama's call for green projects that deliver job growth and enduring benefits. For Toledo, it's a sewer system. For Cleveland, it's $730 million spread among four large building projects, including two highways and a bridge.
Bob Armstrong, mayor of Defiance (population 17,000), wants $4.7 million for the next phase of the town's sewer upgrade, mandated by the EPA. Defiance's part-time lobbyist is on the case in Washington, "going to each of the offices, lobbying with all of the congressmen to send stimulus money."
The cash, Armstrong explained, would pay for a year of sewer work that the town currently expects to underwrite on its own. Streets would be torn up; pipes would be laid; streets would be paved. The work would be done by a private contractor.
Cleveland's ambitions for rescue funds are far larger, running 22 pages. But Mayor Frank G. Jackson is focusing on his four biggest priorities, most notably a new Inner Belt highway bridge with a $350 million price tag.
"If we don't tend to it soon, we're facing the prospect of closing it down for a year to repair it. That's unacceptable to us," said Ken Silliman, the mayor's chief of staff.
Yet Silliman said preparations are incomplete and no dirt could be turned for at least two years, much slower than Obama has in mind.
Republican state Sen. Jon Husted counts himself a skeptic about all the good works and grand hiring that the stimulus package is supposed to produce.
"What are the states going to do with this money?" said Husted, a former state House speaker. "We're going to take all the money that we can take and put it into our ongoing expenses. The stimulus package is in some ways turning into a state and local government bailout package."
To keep that from happening, Ohio's environmental groups are trying to make themselves heard, buoyed by Obama's interest in renewable fuels and energy efficiency.
They are pushing public transportation projects instead of more highways. They are urging recipients to spend money as environmentally consciously as possible, buying energy-efficient trucks and using porous parking lot pavement.
"Most of us are talking to the governor," said the Sierra Club's Jennifer Miller. "We know money is going to come through the governor and we know that he's the strongest advocate for Ohio."
Environment Ohio policy director Amy Gomberg is heading to Washington to lobby. She is also pitching stories about the green economy to media outlets, reasoning that the more positive attention projects get, the more likely they will be to get funding.
Valarie J. McCall, an aide to the Cleveland mayor, has been working corridors in Washington not just to influence where the billions should be spent, but by whom. Routing it through the governors is not sufficient, she contends, echoing mayors across the country.
"It's great that dollars will flow to Ohio," McCall said during inauguration week. "But it's important that some of these dollars flow to the hands of the mayors, who can get them right out."
Such a solution would, if nothing else, create a new layer of people to lobby in the quest for federal cash.