Whether it works or not, stimulus money headed to central CA

WASHINGTON -- San Joaquin Valley college students get a helping hand in the humongous economic stimulus bill now set for congressional approval.

Some Valley road projects will be sped up. Altamont Pass windmill owners secure tax credits. A proposed high-speed rail route through the Valley gets a potential jolt, and the Valley's many unemployed will receive benefits for an additional nine months.

No one can yet predict whether the $789 billion package will actually revive the U.S. economy. Lawmakers couldn't even see the bill through most of Thursday, even though they are probably voting on it Friday.

In myriad ways, though, money will certainly be trickling down to individual San Joaquin Valley residents.

Low- to moderate-income college students, for instance, will see a $500 increase in their Pell Grants, to $5,350 this year. Local educators welcome even this modest sounding increase.

"Everything makes a difference," University of California at Merced financial aid director Diana Ralls said in a telephone interview, noting that "U.C. Merced tends to attract a large number of first-generation, low-income college students."

Currently, 40 percent of U.C. Merced students receive the federal Pell Grants boosted by the new bill. This is a higher percentage than most other University of California campuses; at Fresno State, 37 percent of students receive Pell Grants.

College grants are relatively easy to track in the stimulus bill. So are tax breaks. Valley taxpayers, for instance, will receive a refundable tax credit of up to $400, or $800 for a married couple. This tax credit, like others in the bill, applies nationwide.

Other money will flow to states through existing funding formulas. Notably, the bill provides $29 billion nationwide for modernizing roads and bridges. Based on past experience, California's share could be roughly $2.5 billion.

The stimulus bill does not identify specific transportation project recipients, but California transportation officials estimate roughly $200 million could end up in the San Joaquin Valley. State transportation officials, for instance, estimate that with $4.7 million they could widen and improve on ramps at the intersection of McKinley and Shields avenues in Fresno.

"It's a good thing for the Valley," said Bret Rumbeck, spokesman for Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno. "You can improve a lot of roads with that."

Separately, and at the last minute, House and Senate negotiators added $8 billion for high-speed rail work. Some of this will pay for a Los Angeles-to-Los Vegas route backed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Other routes, including within the San Joaquin Valley, stand to pick up funding, as well.

"The congressman is very excited about the $8 billion," said Rumbeck.

Other funding specifics will depend on allocation decisions made within state and federal bureaucracies.

For instance, $2 billion is being added to an existing Neighborhood Stabilization Program. This enables cities and counties with high foreclosure rates to buy, rehabilitate and resell vacant properties. If past funding is any guide, Modesto could receive somewhere between $6 million and $8 million and Fresno between $7 million and $10 million from this expanded program.

On the other hand, Obama administration officials may distribute the neighborhood stabilization money differently than their Bush administration predecessors, who were criticized for allocation decisions that included shunning cities like Merced.

Still other implications remain a mystery even to the lawmakers who will soon be voting on the stimulus bill in the House.

The final bill, well over 1,000 pages, wasn't expected to become available for public review until late Thursday night. Instead, Democratic leaders circulated summaries and press packets, including one purporting to show that the bill would either "create or save" 396,000 California jobs.

Some of the estimates seemed generic.

A Democratic spreadsheet, for instance, contended the bill would create or save "8,000" jobs in the congressional district stretching through San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties. A nearly equal number of jobs would be created or saved in every other congressional district in the state, regardless of their vast socio-economic differences, according to the Democratic documents.

Democratic Reps. Costa, Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, and Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, are expected to vote for the bill. Republican Reps. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, and Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, will vote against it.