Muscogee Republicans ask state, city, school board to reject stimulus

The Muscogee County Republican Party passed a resolution last weekend urging the state and local governments to reject millions of dollars in federal stimulus money now rolling into Georgia.

“Our position is this: It’s a one year paper-over of a more significant problem,” said former county chairman Josh McKoon, who pushed for the resolution. “It puts off the painful decisions and will make them more painful in a year.”

Among the 29 delegates to the county convention was state Sen. Seth Harp. “I understand the sentiment and I understand the feeling,” Harp said.But he knows the more than $1 billion in stimulus funds Georgia’s to get will help blunt the edge of a growing state financial crisis.

“When they voted, I kept my mouth shut,” he said. “It was a voice vote, but I punched Rob Doll, who was sitting beside me. I said, ‘Don’t worry guys, we have already spent it.’”

Though copies will be delivered to Columbus Council and Muscogee County School Board, the resolution, which McKoon said was adopted unanimously, likely will have no impact.

While the final amount has not been determined, the school district could receive as much as $30 million over the next two years. The largest portion of it — $18 million — must be spent in the district’s Title I schools, those with the highest concentrations of poverty. The district expects to receive about 50 percent of stimulus money by the end of the month, and must spend it by September 2010, said Valerie Fuller, the district’s director of communications. The rest of the money is expected to be disbursed to local districts by September 2009, to be spent by September 2011.

“Yes, we could refuse to take the money,” said Superintendent Susan Andrews. “But the quality of education in this county would be hurt if we did not have relief coming from somewhere. Right now, that relief is coming from the federal stimulus. Without it, people would be losing their jobs.”

Andrews said the funds will allow the school district to minimize jobs cuts as state and local tax dollars for education shrink in a failing economy,The resolution addressed that logic: “The stimulus bill is an unprecedented act of fiscal irresponsibility that will indebt generations yet to be born,” states one clause.

School board member John Wells was at the convention, but not a delegate. He argued that the stimulus money would go to the poorest schools, and declining it would hurt the students who need the most help.

“But I understand the position they took,” Wells said. “They were voting strictly on principle and ideology rather than where the money was going. Though I could ideologically reject the stimulus money — I think there is a lot of pork in it — some of the money will do some good.”

The city of Columbus could receive about $5.7 million in federal money for public transit, housing and summer jobs for young people.

The city plans to accept the money, said Judy Thomas, Mayor Jim Wetherington’s assistant. “We have already been awarded it,” she said. “One of the programs is a summer youth jobs program that will put several hundred kids to work this summer.”

The state also is taking money it has been granted.

The local resolution condemned Republican senators who voted for the stimulus, and praised South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, both Republicans who have rejected some of the funds.

Georgia has received $339.6 million for Medicaid, which freed up state funds to help offset cuts in other areas of the 2009 budget, according to Gov. Sonny Perdue’s office. The state is anticipating another $130 million for Medicaid.

Next year, the state is eligible for $1.1 billion in stimulus funds. Even with that money, the governor’s budget includes $500 million in cuts because of lagging tax collections.

“We are looking at every funding stream and deciding on a case-by-case basis if it is in the best interest of Georgia to accept stimulus funds,” said Bert Brantley, the governor’s spokesman. “The funds that we have recognized so far have allowed us to stave off devastating cuts to education, public safety and health care.”

Harp said the state is in a tough spot.

“The second we got the money it went to work,” he said. The stimulus funds allowed the state to continue to fund a tax break for homeowners, without which local governments likely would have had to send out supplemental tax bills later this year, he said.

“If we had not gotten that $428 million, taxes would have gone up,” Harp said. “I don’t think Republican property owners would have liked that.”

McKoon, who is exploring a bid to run for Georgia secretary of state in 2010, said he hopes the local governing bodies consider the request.

“Do I expect them not to take the stimulus funds?” McKoon asked. “I fully expect them to take the stimulus funds.”