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March 15, 2009

The Stimulus Czar Summit – Part 1

Vice President Joe Biden invited the state "stimulus czars" to a Washington conference on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (The stimulus bill); according to the organizers, representatives from 49 states showed up (they didn't say which state didn't show). We really do want to find out as much as we can about this huge, unwieldy program including both what we can and can't do. We did learn some but not as much as we would've liked; we also made contacts with some of the federal agency people we'll be dealing with in the months to come.

"Transparency" was the mantra of the conference; every speaker used the word at least once; many coupled it with "accountability". In that spirit I'll post both the good and bad things about the conference on this blog. I also twittered some of my notes from the conference (it was open to press so not confidential); if you're interested, you can read them (in reverse order) at twitter.com/tevslin. In Vermont we will figure out how to use modern technology, including social media tools like twitter, to get information out.

Energy Secretary and Nobel laureate Steven Chu opened the conference. Chu said that the stimulus money which the Department of Energy awards will "create jobs which can't be outsourced, promote alternative energy, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and… oh, yes save the planet." He pledged that he agency would move quickly to get money out the door and they did, in fact, announce the almost immediate availability of the first $780 million installment of a total program of nearly $8 billion dollars for weatherization and state energy programs. Vermont's total receipts from these programs will be $38.8 million assuming that we demonstrate suitable progress in using the funds as intended (which we will). The weatherization program, which is administered through the states, provides assistance to low income families earning up to 200% of the poverty level for weatherizing their homes; the state energy program can be used for a variety of different energy efficiency projects. The current (pre-stimulus) Vermont weatherization program is described at http://www.helpforvt.org/weatherization. Information on the expanded program will be available soon.

Chu then introduced Vice President Biden. Biden has been positioned as the enforcer for transparency and accountability in the administration of the stimulus bill – "don't mess with Joe". He was suitably stern. Not only will no swimming pools be funded (it says that in the law), but he and the President will soon announce a whole bunch more things along the same line that cannot be paid for with stimulus funds. "Just because it's legal [not forbidden by the law itself], doesn't mean you can do it," he said. He continued that Congress has given the states a huge opportunity to administer large parts of this very ambitious program; if you [stimulus czars] don't do a good job, it'll be a long time before Congress entrusts the states with much responsibility again.

My personal guess is that if we don't all do a very good job on this – feds and state people alike – it'll be a long time before the taxpayers trust any of us with so much of their money again and, when they do, there'll be a new set of people who earn that trust.

We should have known something was up when the television cameras started to cluster around the edges of the small stage; there were more of them appearing every minute. Somebody came and whispered in the ear of Matt Rogers, Senior Adviser to the Secretary of Energy, who was then presenting. "I have a surprise guest to introduce: the President of the United States Barack Obama." We all stood, of course. The President came in quickly from the back of the room and took the podium. He only spoke for about five minutes but we got the message: he thinks this is important; there will be transparency; people will know where there money has gone and what results have been achieved.

"Use these precious dollars [which] taxpayers gave up to deliver short and long term results," the President said. "You've got a wonderful mission; seize this opportunity to put your shoulders to the wheel of history."

More about what we learned (and didn't learn) from the agencies is at http://blog.tomevslin.com/2009/03/the-stimulus-czar-summit-part-2.html.

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