Ralph’s Pretty Good Stimulus: A Missed Opportunity

An okay result from the sausage factory: just don’t tell me I have to like it.

A Prairie Home Companion is sponsored by, among others, Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery: “If you can’t find it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along without it.”

That’s my initial and preliminary take on some of the energy and transportation provisions of the stimulus, although a lot that isn’t in there we probably can’t get along without, like a real commitment to energy efficiency and transit.

In all, it seems to me that this is okay, but really a missed opportunity: of course there is a whole lot of good spending in there, but that’s what a stimulus is for. Priorities have not really — what’s the word I’m looking for? — changed. It’s going to take a lot more to turn this aircraft carrier around.

Highways: $27 billion

Mass Transit: $8.4 billion

Rail: $3.1 billion

“Competitive Grants for Transportation”: $5.5 billion

Sigh: the Highwaymen win again. Might as well face it, you’re addicted to concrete. Better than what I thought was going to be in there for transit, but not really serious.

Of particular interest is $5.5 billion in “Competitive Grants for Transportation,” which can go for either highways or transit: Ray LaHood could be making some important decisions. What is the precise language for these grants? Who from the White House will be riding herd on this? And what will they tell DOT? Enquiring minds want to know.

The energy side also has some news that is, well, pretty good:

$2.6 billion for energy efficient and renewable energy research. Nearly doubling the Bush Administration’s FY 2009 request, but let’s get serious. Compare this to the research budget of NIH, which is $29 billion. That means we are spending more than 10 times more on medical research what we are on energy. Oy. (If this is not an apples-to-apples comparison, readers should let me know and I will update).

$4.2 billion for Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants, which go to state and local governments. These can be quite significant, providing money for key retrofits that can yield enormous (and enormously cost-effective) emissions benefits, like cool roofs. Again, a doubling (even a little more) than the traditional $2 billion, not nearly enough. The US Conference of Mayors asked for $5-10 billion, but given how things ratchet up, this may be all they expected or could have hoped for.

One thing that jumps out at the environmentalist in me: $4.6 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers, and $1.4 billion for the Bureau of Reclamation. Just what we need: more dams. I don’t trust these agencies. But I shouldn’t paint with so broad a brush, and they do provide stimulus.

That’s the sausage factory: not unexpected, but don’t tell me I have to like it.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.