Sunday, February 08, 2009

Stimulus compromise: much less for states, but still billions for broadband; Collins key player

The stimulus compromise negotiated by Democrats, two Republican senators and Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman has less money to expand broadband Internet service than the original version of the Senate bill, but still more than the House passed. And it has more for rural health centers, but less for electronic health data systems that could have particular benefits for rural residents.

The compromise has $7 billion to expand broadband in rural and other underserved areas. The Senate Finance Committee bill called for $9 billion; the House passed $6 billion. "One of the last decisions was to strike $5.8 billion in public health funds to fight preventable diseases," reports David Rogers of Politico.

"Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine, right) was the driving force in making this cut, but elsewhere, she was also a force in adding $870 million for community health centers. The savings include $2 billion from the president’s health information technology initiative." (Read more) Collins represents the nation's second most rural state in population; so does Sen. Olympia Snowe, another Republican who is expected to vote for the bill. The key Democratic player was Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

Maine's major paper, the Portland Press Herald, recently closed down its Washington bureau, but Tom Bell interviewed Collins by phone and wrote, "She said her role in negotiating a compromise has been one of the highlights of her career. "A lot of people back in Maine have been contacting me to say they are delighted that I played a key role in bringing people together," Collins told him. "And they didn't want to see partisan gridlock, which is what we were heading towards." (Read more)

The story for rural areas is not just at the federal level. Few states can run deficits, and most are cutting budgets because tax revenue declines with the economy. They would not get as much money from the compromise version. The compromise cuts to $39 billion from $79 billion a "fund to help states avoid sizable layoffs and cuts in services, especially in public education," Gail Russell Chaddock reports for the Christian Science Monitor. She notes the Senate bill eliminates $3.5 billion for higher-education construction and has $16 billion less for school construction, $1 billion less for early childhood education and $600 million less in new Title I funding for schools with low-income students. Some of that could be restored by a House-Senate conference committee; top White House economic aide Lawrence Summers said on ABC’s “This Week” today that education funding in the House version was “critical.” (Read more)

Schools construction, broadband and rural water and sewer lines ranked 3-2-1 on a list of stimulus needs offered by Billy Ray Hall, president of the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center, in a column in the News & Record of Greensboro. "This is not an urban recession, as it is sometimes portrayed," Hall wrote. "It is a severe recession for both rural and urban America." (Read more)

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