Stimulus in Texas: Where is the money going?

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by Dave Fehling / 11 News

khou.com

Posted on September 15, 2010 at 8:00 PM

Updated Wednesday, Sep 15 at 11:49 PM

HOUSTON -- Federal tax money from the stimulus program is building new roads in Houston, buying new equipment for the police in Rosenberg and paying for new forklifts for a local Fortune 500 company. But in an interesting twist, some of the biggest recipients aren’t publicizing their good fortune.

It’s a lot of money and a big national controversy: the over $700 billion stimulus program, officially known as the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. The 11 News I-Team sorted the data to find out where the stimulus bucks are going, and what cities are getting the most and the least. And the I-Team looked for signs the money is being misspent. Actually, looking for "signs" is more difficult in Texas than in some other states receiving stimulus funds.

It used to be when politicians spent tax money, they’d put up signs so they’d get credit for it with voters. But it’s different with federal stimulus money.

"Texans by and large don’t want to be dependent on federal government," said Texas Governor Rick Perry back in March 2009. Perry said he didn’t like the idea of Texas taking so much federal money and even rejected millions for unemployment.

Now, as stimulus money nonetheless pours into Texas, there’s something different here than in some other states, at least when it comes to road projects. For example, along I-10 just west of downtown Houston, stimulus funds are paying the entire bill for an $88 million frontage road. But even though there are signs warning drivers of detours and closed lanes, there’s not one telling where the money came from.

Other states have put up thousands of stimulus signs. Typical are ones found in Ohio, a state with a democrat in the governor’s office. They’re big, green and orange and read: "Putting America to Work, Project Funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act."

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) told 11 News Governor Perry didn’t order TxDOT not to put up the signs, rather, TxDOT just thought the signs were a waste of money, according to a spokesperson in Austin.

"It’s one of those issues where neither side can really win," said Rick Wilson, a professor of politics at Rice University. Wilson found out firsthand how taking stimulus money can make you a target for political criticism.

His department got over $100,000 in stimulus money to do a study on how people feel about the stimulus. Wilson said they hired one, full-time researcher and paid 11 part-time graduate students to work on the project. The professor said it was a fitting use of the stimulus program which is supposed to be "putting America to work," as those signs say.

Nonetheless, last month, Republican Senator John McCain put the professor’s project on a list of 100 examples of what the senator said was wasteful spending.

"Now, I can see their point that maybe this is frivolous spending but in fact, this is just basic research," said Wilson

Research is one reason the Houston area is getting some $546 million. It’s going in large part to universities, but also to health clinics, low-income housing and energy efficiency.

That’s more than Dallas, which is getting $294 million, but substantially less than Atlanta ($3 billion) or Chicago ($1.4 billion)

For road projects, Houston’s getting nearly $900 million. That’s’ a bit less than Dallas-Fort Worth ($1.2 billion) but according to TxDOT, it’s still a major boost, paying for major road projects that TxDOT otherwise couldn’t afford.

"Oh certainly, we’re seeing a substantial amount of work," said Raquelle Lewis, a TxDOT spokesperson.

But smaller municipalities are benefitting, too. In Fort Bend County, Rosenberg got $5.8 million for police equipment, roads, and sewage plants. By comparison, more affluent League City said it asked for over $3 million but got only about $700,000 for things including new sidewalks and hybrid city vehicles. Some cities that government data showed receiving little or no funding, including Galena Park ($47,000) and South Houston ($0), didn’t respond to calls seeking comment.

Not all recipients of the stimulus money are local governments or schools. For example, one is a Fortune 500 company with billions in profits.

At a huge, new warehouse just off Beltway 8 in north Houston, the Sysco Corporation used $1.2 million in stimulus money to go toward buying a fleet of new forklifts. The total cost was over $3 million according to Mark Palmer, Sysco’s spokesman.

"They buzz around here like bees," he said as the forklifts zoomed past him in the warehouse, carrying some of the thousands of different items the food distributor handles.

The reason Sysco qualified for the money was because the forklifts are powered by hydrogen gas, instead of old-style batteries that need to be charged with electricity.

"We don’t need the tax money," said Palmer, explaining that they took the money because otherwise, they’d never have invested in what he said is still experimental and expensive technology.

"In return, we’re sharing everything with the Department of Energy," said Palmer.

For more info on where stimulus funds are going, click here and here.

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