Money for Nothing

Money for Nothing

Richard J. Karson

The ink is barely dry on the economic-recovery legislation that President Obama signed into law on February 17, but it’s already clear that the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is no prelude to a new New Deal.

During a February 12 conference call with reporters, Senator Charles Schumer and Governor David Paterson confirmed that New York’s share of the spending—an estimated $24.6 billion over the next two years—offers relatively little by way of the grand public projects that many architects envisioned.

Rather than funding fresh parks, bridge upgrades, and government-office construction, Senator Schumer said, the bill will largely plug budget gaps for Medicaid, aid for education, and broad-based transportation upkeep. While this last category might raise hopes in design and planning circles, it remained unclear at press time just how the funds would be apportioned and whether sorely needed downstate investments would fall victim to Albany wrangling.

“We estimate New York will get $1.3 billion for mass transit, and all money must go to infrastructure,” Schumer said. “It will help us upgrade subway stations and rail stations in the New York area and do the newer projects, whether it’s the Second Avenue subway or whatever,” he said.

The conference report that reconciled House and Senate versions of the bill offered just shy of $400 million for capital improvements to public housing in the city, and the state stands to gain $2.5 billion for education spending, some of which will presumably boost school construction and renovation.

While this is good news, the bill’s main thrust, Schumer and Paterson said, is to help New Yorkers reenter the labor force by tightening the safety net for health care and schools. And Paterson made it clear that the bill would not alter his austere plans for state investment: If anything, he said, it obliged him and the legislature to show even more discipline as fallout from the economic collapse drives the state’s deficit even higher.

“What’s important is that we use the stimulus to stimulate the economy,” the governor said. “Where we have deficit reduction programs in effect, that is our responsibility. Preference [in funding] went to states that were managing their crises rather than trying to avoid them.”

For his part, Mayor Bloomberg saluted the state’s Congressional delegation for delivering for New York, but sounded a note of caution about the bill’s ultimate impact. “We are still reviewing all of the details to determine the amount of funding allocated to the city,” he said in a statement. “Although it’s clear that this new federal support won’t solve all our budget problems, it certainly will help address the enormous fiscal challenges we face.”

What comes next is a pile-on for money from all jurisdictions, wherein patronage and luck figure to play their usual roles. That much was made clear when interest groups spent much of February 17 lambasting the idea of spending stimulus cash on Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards project, hinting at more arduous political jockeying to come.