Valley lawmakers uncertain about stimulus package

WASHINGTON -- An $825 billion stimulus bill set for House approval Wednesday could pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the San Joaquin Valley, where political sentiment appears divided along party lines.

Valley highway projects could receive an estimated $200 million. Lemoore Naval Air Station in Kings County could receive child care and housing assistance. Cities would receive money to hire police officers. Yosemite and other national parks would receive funding to fix themselves up.

Important questions remain unanswered.

California officials are still trying to figure out precisely where the dollars would flow. Economists are still debating whether the stimulus package would actually turn the faltering U.S. economy around. Politicians are still lining up on one side or the other, though most already have made up their minds.

"It's a grab bag of projects that have been built up by leftist Democrats," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. "I don't think just throwing money out across the country is going to work."

But some things are certain.

Definitely, the House of Representatives will approve the package. Democrats currently control the House by a 255-178 margin, and party leaders want a bill on President Barack Obama's desk by mid-February.

Valley Democratic Reps. Jim Costa of Fresno and Dennis Cardoza of Merced stated late Tuesday afternoon that they were still undecided.

"There are parts of it I like, and parts of it I don't like," said Costa, who along with Cardoza belongs to the fiscally conservative House Blue Dog Coalition.

Cardoza, a member of the leadership-appointed House Rules Committee, said that while "it's obvious that the country needs a stimulus package ... there are things I would not leave in there."

Unquestionably, most Republicans will vote against what Democrats call the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Though they praised Obama's meeting with congressional Republicans Tuesday, the Valley's GOP lawmakers still oppose the bill Obama wants.

"It's throwing a lot against the wall and hoping some of it sticks," said Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa. "It doesn't really have within it the ability to change the tough times we're in."

The bill totaled 647 pages as of Tuesday. House members had submitted more than 200 additional proposed amendments, though it wasn't clear how many Democratic leaders would allow votes on.

The bill will certainly change, as the Senate is writing its own version and then the two must be reconciled.

Leery of a political backlash, congressional leaders largely left out explicit earmarks. Still, some state-by-state consequences can be calculated.

Currently, for instance, 2.3 million California residents receive aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It used to be called the Food Stamp program. These residents, including 147,000 in Fresno County, 35,000 in Merced County and 52,000 in Stanislaus County, would see a 13.6 percent increase in their benefits, offsetting higher food costs.

The overall House bill includes $30 billion for highway projects. The California Department of Transportation estimates California could get about $3 billion of this. Based on past experience, CalTrans officials further advised San Joaquin Valley congressional offices that the Valley's share could amount to roughly $200 million.

In a similar vein, California could expect a sizable chunk of the $1 billion proposed for the Community Oriented Policing Services grant program. In the past three years, the program has provided grants of $369,000 to the Merced Police Department, $94,000 to the Atwater Police Department and $81,000 to the Tulare County Sheriff's Department, among many other Valley recipients.

In theory, the cities and counties receiving the COPS grants must agree to eventually shoulder the full costs of the newly hired officers.

Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon and other national parks that have seen deferred maintenance projects pile up would share $1.9 billion.

"Should money become available, we've got a huge amount of projects we could do," Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said Tuesday, citing utility improvements and trail work in particular.

Other elements of the House bill include:

-- $3 billion for Byrne Justice Assistance Grants. These are used for buying equipment, paying overtime expenses and supporting other law enforcement efforts. Last fiscal year, for instance, the city of Fresno received $283,000 from the existing grant program.

-- $350 million for Navy and Marine Corps housing and child care improvements. Lemoore has a housing backlog and hopes of expanding the current child care facilities.

-- $13 billion would go to the Title I education programs designed to assist students in high-poverty areas. San Joaquin Valley schools are major recipients of the Title I funds.