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May 03, 2009

Is Vermont Moving Fast Enough?

My last post complained that federal agencies are not moving quickly enough to make the rules and give out the money for competitive stimulus programs in crucial areas like broadband and energy. Getting these projects under way in the this year's construction season is going to be a problem.

So how well are we doing here in Vermont at putting ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act aka the stimulus bill) money to work?

We've done a good job of getting highway projects underway. It's taken us slightly longer to sort out the priorities for water projects but we're getting there. We can't make our own rules for alternative energy and energy efficiency and some economic development programs until both houses of the Legislature and the Governor agree on a budget (hopefully'll happen by the end of this week). With hindsight I wish that I had pushed for separate legislation to get some of these projects going faster; but it's not clear whether that could've happened or even that the Legislature should have looked at a budget for ARRA money out of context of the rest of the state budget.

The Douglas Administration has proposed that large amounts of the ARRA money which has been allocated to the state by the Department of Energy be spent for alternative energy and energy efficiency projects. The intent is to distribute this money through open processes –either competitive or first come, first served for eligible projects – depending on the anticipated demand for a particular program. The idea is to make sure that the most effective projects are the ones that get done.

We can't write the precise rules for these programs until we know what the Vermont legislature finally authorizes. But we know we have to get the rules written and the awards made quickly to take as much advantage as possible of this year's summer construction season, put people to work, and quickly start reaping the long term benefits of less dependence on imported fossil fuels. You should judge us by whether we meet these goals.

We in Vermont decided to go ahead and prepare for the competitive ARRA broadband, smart grid, education, and e-health awards even in the absence of final regulations from Washington. It'll probably turn out that we've "wasted" some of this work when we see the rules under which grants are to be awarded. We rushed to be ready to file applications for broadband and smart grid grants as early as the beginning on May; looks like we didn't have to move quite that quickly. On the other hand, since we know now how we'd like to proceed in these areas, we find ourselves well-positioned to comment on both proposed regulations and the proposed (but too slow!) schedule of awards.

States have an incentive to move very quickly once ARRA money has been granted. If the money is not spent quickly, it will be reclaimed by the feds and redistributed to speedier states. Our ambition is to have Vermont benefit from these reallocations. Our small size and the important fact that we already have projects in broadband, smart grid, and health information systems underway will help; some of our permitting and review processes could be a problem. Stay tuned.

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