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Thursday, February 17, 2011

2nd candle marks $787b in stimulus

Put a second candle on the $787 billion cake known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

ARRA, also popularly known as the economic stimulus package, was signed into law by President Obama two years ago today.

Intended to create jobs and spur the economy, the stimulus package has generated criticism and praise. Critics claim the recovery act has fallen short in lessening unemployment, while supporters point to how the money helped governments and social agencies survive the recession.

Regardless of viewpoint, one thing is certain about the stimulus package: Almost every dollar spent has a paper trail highlighting who used it and how.

Transparency was a chief goal of the White House, and New Hampshire has followed suit since it opened its state Office of Economic Stimulus not long after the president signed the act into law.

For instance, on Monday, Chris Clement, the office’s director, presented the bureau’s sixth report on stimulus spending and job creation.

Clement reported that as of Dec. 31, $984.4 million in stimulus contracts, grant and loans have been made to the state, municipalities, schools, colleges, businesses, nonprofit organizations and individuals.

The money has paved roads, weatherized low-income houses, and financed health and education programs, among other things.

As the stimulus act enters a second year, a bulk of New Hampshire’s allotment of the federal pie has been allocated. But many programs are still active, and some grants will be spent as late as 2015, Clement said.

The office’s website – nh.gov/recovery – provides a detailed listing of how stimulus money has been used, highlighting by county and municipality where money went.

Aside from Clement, the stimulus office’s staff includes an administrator of funds, two internal auditors and a compliance review officer. Their work has included verifying that correct wages are paid on stimulus-funded jobs, reviewing the quality of projects and guaranteeing that money is handled properly.

“New Hampshire is, in my humble opinion, leading the country in transparency,” Clement said.

Transparency is one aspect of the stimulus package that the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a leading critic of the recovery act, doesn’t disagree with.

“What we see is an improvement in transparency and where the money has gone,” said Grant Bosse, an investigator for Josiah Bartlett.

At first, the federal government’s stimulus tracking website – Recovery.gov – was “shoddy,” Bosse said. But now that site has improved, and with New Hampshire’s site providing a close accounting of spending, taxpayers can judge how effective the recovery act has been, he said.

“Now that we got a look at where the money is going, we see it’s gone to prop up local and state spending,” Bosse said. “It hasn’t created jobs. It’s paying for teachers already in the classroom. It’s paved roads that were already meant to be paved.”

In his recent report, Clement said 7.68 million work hours have been funded since New Hampshire first started getting federal stimulus money in 2009 until December 2010.

Clement provided a more detail breakdown of the more recent stimulus quarter, from July to December 2010. In that time, 1.03 million work hours were funded with stimulus money, the report said. That’s the equivalent of 2,036 jobs. The report didn’t have a job equivalent for the past two years.

Bosse has criticized how the state has presented this statistic, emphasizing hours worked and using FTE (or full-time equivalent) statistics to extrapolate how that translates into total jobs.

After the recovery act was passed two years ago, the White House estimated stimulus funds would save or create 16,000 jobs in New Hampshire.

Bosse argues the Obama administration could have saved and created jobs more effectively instead of spending $787 billion. He suggested cutting payroll taxes, among other ideas.

But many others applaud the stimulus package and claim it helped during a rough economy.

The nonprofit agency Southern New Hampshire Services says stimulus money paid for programs that assisted the unemployed and underemployed. Programs included emergency assistance for food, rent, mortgages and energy bills.

“It was a tremendous benefit to the state,” said Greg Schneider of SNHS. “There was a general perception it put people in jobs for a year, that you throw some money out there and get people working. But it wasn’t that simple.”

Among the SNHS programs that stimulus money funded were an English language and cultural immersion program that helped as many as 400 immigrants assimilate, and a summer nutrition program for low-income schoolchildren.

With a great portion of stimulus money already allocated, governments and agencies must now adjust to the federal pipeline shutting down. SNHS, for instance, has kept some stimulus-financed positions by finding other government funding sources but has had to eliminate other jobs, Schneider said.

The Nashua School District must also decide how to cope without the federal boost. When all is said and done, the district will have spent about $6.1 million in stimulus funding.

Nashua Superintendent Mark Conrad said the district has been told its deadline for spending the money is Aug. 30. He said the district plans on using the final $20,000 of its Title I stimulus funding to pay for a summer school program for students in the city’s low-income schools.

Although some money was set aside for professional development and consultants, the district used the bulk of its funding for staffing. Conrad has proposed retaining some of special education positions, including 35 paraprofessionals, but all of the positions created using the Title I funding are slated to end this year.

“There will be positions affected next year and there will be layoffs, unfortunately,” Conrad said.

Staff writer Michael Brindley contributed to this report. Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832 or amckeon@nashuatelegraph.com