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March 15, 2021

Lessons from the Last Stimulus

Don’t miss the opportunity to use big bucks for big change.

BidendouglasBack when this picture was taken, VP Biden was running the stimulus program for the Obama Administration and I was stimulus czar in Vermont. The other two people in the picture are Vermont Governor Jim Douglas and Heidi Tringe who worked in the Douglas Administration and had worked at the White House. We were there, of course, to advance Vermont interests.

Partly because of this visit, Vermont utilities applying en masse received the largest grant on a per capita basis of any state from the stimulus funds in the energy bucket. That money got spent to install smart meters everywhere in the state. Unlike some stimulus-funded efforts, this one was completed, although, to be honest we haven’t gotten all the benefits from smart meters we hoped we would. A lot of money was also awarded for broadband in Vermont but the FCC, which was doing the awarding, didn’t pay much attention to input from states. The money did improve Vermont’s middle mile IP connectivity but did not bring all the consumer connectivity for either wireless or broadband which was promised.

We did not leverage the money to make significant structural change. We used too much of it to cover short-term problems or even to start programs which later had no good funding source. As the recession lifted, we had made no significant dent in crumbling bridges, an educational system with escalating costs and shrinking student populations, the rapidly rising cost of healthcare, our declining population, abandoned farms, and the cost of living in Vermont and we still have more than 10% of residences with no access to quality broadband. The flood of money came like a thunderstorm in the desert and seemed to disappear into the sand.

Last time most money for infrastructure improvement other than highway bypassed the states and was awarded directly by Washington agencies which knew nothing about local conditions or local providers. I tried to leverage highway funds by mandating that fiber for communication be part of stimulus funded road projects. Both the FCC and Federal Highway Administration said “You can’t combine programs.” No why. No appeal. And we didn’t want to turn down the money.

Then there was the ridiculous restriction that programs had to be “shovel ready”. The Obama Administration hadn’t been in office long enough to know that nothing is shovel ready. Permitting for major projects can take 20 years. No relief on that front either. But most of the money had to be spent fast or it would be redistributed to other states.

That was then and this is now. We can do better.

This time much of the money is coming directly to the government of the state of Vermont and municipal governments. Although all the rules aren’t written, we will apparently have more control of how the money is spent. The $1.35 billion in Corona Virus Relief Fund money includes $113 million for infrastructure including broadband and $197 million for municipalities.

There’s enough money there if used as leverage for private funds so that we can finally have high quality broadband available at every E911 address in Vermont within a year. We can assure that all Vermonters, either in areas currently served or areas currently unserved, can afford the broadband they need to learn at home, work from home, and benefit from telemedicine. Some people say that this will take at least four years, but that’s only because they are looking at plans made before the new money and new technology expanded possibilities. It’s time to think big.

Universal broadband is the infrastructure upon which we should use stimulus funds to reinvent education, health care delivery, work patterns, energy use, and transportation. In order to say that work from home is an option for every Vermonter (and would-be Vermonter) who can find work which can be done at home, we must also be able to say that every Vermonter can Zoom from home. We will want to take the best of what teachers and students have learned about remote learning and use it to supplement – not replace – in person instruction. Every student must be able to participate. We can help control health care costs with telemedicine – so long as telemedicine is available to every Vermonter.

With the coming high percentage of people working all or part time at home, peak traffic loads, peak mass transit usage, and peak electrical demand flatten out. We do need to build our electric grid to reflect distributed generation, an increasing mix of renewables, and the shutdown of Vermont Yankee and to make us resilient in a way Texas and California aren’t in the face of natural disasters. We are getting enough money to allow us to restructure so that future energy costs and environmental impact will be lower, education dollars spent more effectively, and better health care delivered at lower cost.

To make these good things happen, we must have broadband equity – adequate broadband and the tools to use it at every E911 address and affordable to all regardless of income level. A broadband plan which accomplishes this objective in two years is the bedrock on which we can construct a new and even better Vermont using stimulus money.

This is an opportunity we – and America – can’t miss. Our children will have to pay these borrowed stimulus dollars back. That will not be a burden if we invest those dollars wisely so that they earn their own return.

See also Vermont Starlink FAQs

Confessions of a Stimulator

 

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