A growing chorus of Republican governors say they will not accept a portion of the federal stimulus funding their states are eligible to receive, putting schools in the middle of a heated political squabble that is sure to affect their budgets.
Last week, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said she would accept only 69 percent of the estimated $930 million that could flow to her state, leaving it up to the Alaska Legislature to request hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government.
Palin’s rejection of $160 million for education drew a strong rebuke from Anchorage Superintendent of Schools Carol Comeau, who said she was shocked and disappointed.
"We believe that we can make very good use of the funds, not only in job preservation but also in adding new positions to ultimately use these funds to increase student achievement for our neediest children," Comeau said in a news release.
Comeau pointed to money that would have gone into training for special-education teachers and additional support for needy preschool children.
Palin said she would only accept money that is "timely, targeted and temporary" and does not create strings that will bind the state in the future.
"I can’t attest to every fund that’s being offered the state in the stimulus package will be used to create jobs and stimulate the economy, so I’m requesting only those things that I know will," Palin said at a March 19 news conference at the state Capitol. "Public discussion will have to ensue on all those other dollars that some will say ‘you left on the table.’"
Some other Republican governors also have announced reservations about accepting the federal money, particularly when it comes to expanding jobless benefits.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry last week announced that he turned down $555 million of federal stimulus funding that would expand the state’s unemployment benefits. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has said he would not accept nearly $100 million to expand unemployment benefits. And South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has said he only wants to use the federal money to pay down debt.
The White House has rejected Sanford’s bid to use $700 million in federal stimulus cash to pay down his state’s school construction debt. White House Budget Director Peter Orszag sent Sanford a letter March 20 saying the federal cash should be used on new education programs, not to pay off debt.
In all, South Carolina is eligible to receive $2.8 billion in federal help. Sanford has said he would reject part of the money if President Barack Obama doesn’t give him flexibility in spending it. State lawmakers have said they’ll request the money if Sanford doesn’t.
Other Republican governors, including Charlie Crist of Florida and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, have welcomed the stimulus bounty.
Overall, Palin rejected nearly $288 million in federal aid–and many, such as Senate Finance Committee Co-Chairman Bert Stedman, were surprised.
"I think the Legislature will take a good hard look at the impact on Alaska," said Stedman, a Republican. "The governor might have a broader view."
With so little time left before the April 3 deadline to formally request funds from the stimulus package, Stedman expects the state Legislature will ask for the full amount, and if lawmakers determine later that some of the money would have adverse long-term effects on the state, to decline it then.
Alaska has been somewhat cushioned from the effects of the global recession, but the state faces a $2.6 billion deficit over this year and next from low oil prices and declining oil production on the North Slope. Oil makes up about 90 percent of state revenues.
Sen. Hollis French, a Democrat, said the governor was breaking with a long tradition in Alaska.
"The state has made its business to get as many federal dollars as possible to help us create an infrastructure and build our state," he said. "I just really think the governor made a mistake here."
The five-member conservative Republican minority in the Alaska Senate supported Palin’s decision. Sen. Con Bunde, a Republican, compared the package to having too much to drink.
"A good time may be had by all, but the hangover the next day, and the consequences of what you did while you were drunk, may be with you for a long, long time," Bunde said.
Palin said she was acting in the best interests of Alaskans, but Democratic Rep. Les Gara questioned the motives of the former Republican vice presidential candidate.
"I read it that she’s going to be running for national office and has a campaign position that unfortunately conflicts with the state’s interests," he said.
(Editor’s note: For more information about the federal stimulus package and its implications for schools, see our special Educator Resource Center on the topic at http://www.eschoolnews.com/resources/stimulating-achievement/.)