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Governors Suggest More Federal Funding for Infrastructure

July 13, 2008

PHILADELPHIA _ Many of the nation’s governors, dealing with crumbling schools, roads, bridges and water systems, would like economic stimulus checks of their own.

Gathered in Philadelphia for a conference of the National Governors Association, state leaders suggested that a federal infusion of cash _ similar to the $150 billion program of rebates to individual taxpayers _ could create new jobs and rebuild vital underpinnings of state economies.

“We have 100-year-old schools that need to be replaced. We have this tunnel under the Hudson that needs to be built. PATCO needs to be expanded,” New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine said Sunday. And he said the impact of spending on such infrastructure projects “would last much longer than the rebates.”

He suggested that each billion dollars could create 3,000 to 4,000 jobs.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who is set to become chairman of the governors’ organization Monday, has said he will make infrastructure improvements the central theme of his tenure. Pennsylvania has more than 6,000 structurally deficient bridges, more than any other state in the nation, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

Earlier this year, Rendell joined with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to create a coalition to push for more federal money for highways, bridges, airports, water systems and other infrastructure.

Economists told a panel chaired by Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm on Sunday that a federal infrastructure stimulus would help if it funded programs already in the works. Otherwise, construction could be too late to help in the current economic downturn.

“It needs to be an infrastructure program that is ready to go,” economist Diane Swonk said. She added another caveat: “The American public will not write a blank check for pork-barrel projects.”

Corzine suggested that payments should go to projects shown to offer the greatest return to residents.

Granholm, whose auto-manufacturing state has been hit hard by the increase in gas prices and the downturn in the auto industry, asked if a second direct stimulus payment to citizens would help the floundering economy.

Economist Joseph Mason, a senior fellow at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a professor at Louisiana State University, said it would “have little or no effect until the credit markets regain their footing.”

As states scramble to try to help residents losing their jobs and their homes, the governors were warned they should not expect a lot of help from the federal government.

Paul Posner, an economist at George Mason University, said the trend is toward “coercive federalism,” with Washington mandating state programs, without paying for them.

The governors Sunday also discussed ways to decrease reliance on foreign oil supplies and on oil in general.

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford dismissed as “a totally bogus government mandate” the corn-to-ethanol fuel program, and Michigan’s Granholm told the chairman of BP America that oil companies are “viewed like the tobacco companies,” seen as profiting from Americans’ misery.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose state is home to vast oil reserves currently off-limits to drilling, urged a push to “allow our lands to be unlocked.”

BP America chairman Robert Malone urged the governors to push Washington to permit drilling in Alaska and in offshore areas around the country. He also called for programs and funding to “kick-start alternative energy,” such as wind and solar power.

Malone recounted decades of failed federal efforts to reduce reliance on foreign oil, increase conservation, and boost other forms of energy.

“As a nation, we can’t afford to get it wrong again,” Malone said.

Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran, co-author of “Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future, told the governors “the only real solution is to get off oil.”

Before adjourning to the Pennsylvania Convention Center for an evening of music with disc jockey Jerry Blavat and performers Chubby Checker and Bobby Rydell, governors also discussed strategies for improving education and for reintegrating troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan into civilian society.

The governors will return home Monday, after a final session on clean energy technology and an address by Rendell.

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(c) 2008, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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