WASHINGTON — The economic stimulus bill approved by the House last week and a similar bill to be considered in the Senate this week give state and federal officials wide latitude in spending hundreds of billions of dollars.
Like the House bill, the Senate version has about $550 billion in spending. But the Senate version has a bigger tax cut portion, since it includes relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax.
Democratic lawmakers hope to have a final version on President Barack Obama’s desk by mid-February.
Most Oklahomans will benefit from the tax cuts in the package, and low-income residents could qualify for more food stamp aid.
Unemployed Oklahomans could qualify for longer benefits and help in paying health care policy premiums to their former employers.
The House bill avoids "earmarks,” which are specific projects requested by lawmakers, and instead sends large amounts to states through established funding formulas.
Other large sums are granted to federal agencies to distribute through grants or other means, leading one Oklahoma lawmaker to question whether political clout could determine how some money is allocated.
Jobs for Oklahomans
Gary Ridley, director of the state Transportation Department, has been working for three months on a list of state road and bridge projects that will be ready to go when the money is in the pipeline.
Ridley said the money will have use-it-or-lose-it conditions, but he doesn’t expect any other restrictions that would prevent the highway commission from approving bids on projects that have been part of the department’s backlog for years.
"We’re focused on the fact that we need to move quickly on this,” Ridley said. "It means jobs for Oklahomans.”
Most of the road and transit money is expected to go through the funding formula used since 2005 to distribute gas tax revenue to states for construction. Oklahoma is expected to get about $500 million for roads, bridges and transit projects.
The state actually has more "shovel-ready” projects than would be funded by that amount. Ridley said he expects the commission to divide the projects among its eight divisions statewide.
Sandy Garrett, Oklahoma’s schools superintendent, said she thinks the rules for some of the education funding in the bill will be "pretty specific.”
But, after a conference call with her counterparts in other states and new U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan last week, Garrett said there were a lot of questions remaining to be answered.
The bill includes nearly $80 billion to help states avoid cuts in common and higher education. Though Oklahoma is not currently expected to require cuts to education — despite a budget shortfall — it is expected to get more than $761 million out of that $80 billion.
The state also will get money for school renovation and construction, aid for disadvantaged students and early learning programs.
Other provisions of the House bill call for a lump sum of spending and give only general guidelines.
For instance, the bill allots $920 million for U.S. Army construction projects and says $820 million should be used for troop housing and $100 million for child development centers.
It doesn’t specifically say whether Fort Sill, in southwestern Oklahoma, will get any of the money, leaving it up to the secretary of defense to submit a list of spending projects to Congress.
Another section allocates $550 million for Indian Health facilities, including construction and deferred maintenance, but doesn’t specify state-by-state spending.
There are more than 280,000 people served in the Indian Health Services region headquartered in Oklahoma.
For some spending, the bill calls for money to be allocated through competitive grants.
But Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, said more open-ended processes could lead to members of Congress pushing their states’ priorities on to agency officials.
"If you’re on the inside track, it’s a great deal,” Lucas said.
"But most Americans won’t be beneficiaries.”
Both bills include money for things that have been priorities of some Oklahoma Republican lawmakers for years — road and bridge projects, military construction, maintenance and operation of military bases, agricultural research, rural development, prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, rehabilitation of watershed dams and aid for school districts that lose property tax revenue because of military bases.
All four GOP House members from Oklahoma voted against the bill.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said the money for roads and bridges and other public works projects was "alarmingly low.” He is working with senators from both parties for more spending on those items. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is working on an alternative plan also.
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