Now that Congress has come to terms on the parameters of the $789 billion economic recovery package, and President Obama is poised to sign the massive legislation, all eyes will shift to the outflow of federal dollars down into states to fulfill the goals detailed in the bill. We are about to witness a feeding frenzy unlike anything we have ever seen as tens of billions of dollars wind through federal agencies and down into states. Throughout the development of the legislation hundreds of lobbyists, advocacy organizations, business associations and not-for-profit groups have been bidding for the funding of their priorities. Now that the bill is set to be passed, these parties will shift their focus to federal agencies and states that will receive funding.
The real challenge for distressed communities, including many areas of the country where Blacks comprise the majority, is how to make certain these dollars reach down low enough to make a difference in any of the areas in the legislation, whether it is creating or saving jobs, repairing and constructing transportation infrastructure or creating opportunities to train young adults and create pathways to employment. The Obama administration has announced it will launch a website – www.recovery.gov – that will allow the public to track the flow of dollars from Washington, pinpoint the specific federal agency with oversight responsibility, identify the appropriate administrator at the state level, detail the uses of the funds and provide a contact for questions specific to the particular appropriation or program.
Even with the availability of an online tracking there is bound to be confusion over how programs are implemented, funds dispensed, and eligibility issues for organizations and firms seeking to provide services. The public too is bound to have a difficult time in trying to determine just how these stimulus dollars are working toward improving conditions in communities and expanding job opportunities. There are a few places in government where people can start to ask questions now and make their voices heard as one of the largest, single federal appropriations in history is poised to become law.
Why not start at the top? The governors of each state are going to have ultimate say on how federal dollars are absorbed and distributed. It is not too early to contact your governor’s office and inquire who will be the point person on federal stimulus spending. If you have never called the governor’s office, don’t worry, they are people just like the rest of us. Just think Blagojevich and it should strip that awe right away.
Your Member of Congress and Senators
You should definitely reach out to your member of the House of Representatives and your Senators. After all, they voted for the bill (unless of course you are in a Republican district) so it is important to hold their feet to the fire in terms of how these federal dollars are allocated and spent. Now, you will likely not be able to immediately speak to your Representative or Senator when you call so simply ask for the name of the staff person who is responsible for tracking stimulus spending in your district (for members of the House) and state (for your Senators).
If your member of Congress is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus or the Congressional Hispanic Caucus you should check the websites of those caucuses to see their list of priorities to be able to hold your Representative accountable to the goals those groups outlined for stimulus funds.
If you belong to a local NAACP or Urban League chapter, or civic group, you should ask for a meeting to get a full understanding of how the stimulus dollars will be used in your community. While phone conversations and letters are helpful, nothing beats a face-to-face meeting. You will likely be told that the member’s schedule is too busy; don’t take no for an answer. If you can’t meet directly with the member, then meet with the highest aide available, starting with the Chief of Staff, Counsel, Policy Director or Legislative Assistant.
Your Mayor and Council Member
This is where the rubber meets the road. If these elected officials are not on top of things, there is little chance that your community will benefit or individual support you might receive will ever materialize. Call City Hall and find out who in city government has been designated to coordinate with state government on the use of stimulus funding. You should also check the U.S. Conference of Mayors website to see if your mayor submitted a list of “shovel ready” infrastructure projects that will likely be given priority.
Where you outreach starts may not be as important as simply starting to make inquiries. The idea of the stimulus package is to quickly inject money into the economy to get people back to work and increase consumer spending. There will be tremendous pressure on elected officials to spend this money and spend it fairly quickly. The criticism of the bank bailout has been that federal aid has generally been held by banks while consumers have been unable to get credit for mortgages and other significant purchases such as automobiles or home improvements. Congress will likely exert considerable pressure on the administration to move stimulus dollars quickly and that means states and municipalities will have to ramp up quickly to be prepared to receive funds, meet all of the necessary legal requirements and distribute monies. If communities are not prepared with some programmatic recommendations on how funds should be expended, where they should be targeted and where not, the needs of Blacks will be overlooked and a tremendous opportunity will be missed.