Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Editorial: Stumbling start to the right path

For someone as image-savvy as Gov. Sarah Palin, it was surprising to see her stuff her foot in her mouth as unnecessarily as she did over federal stimulus spending.

Her announcement March 18 that she would not request a third of the federal stimulus money Alaska was eligible for, about $288 million of $931 million, caused an immediate and vehement response from prospective recipients, most notably, schools and social services agencies.

The announcement created controversy where there ordinarily is none by the governor saying “no thanks” to money that would feed the poor and help educate special-needs and financially disadvantaged kids.

She might as well have kicked a puppy while she was at it.

Out of the fervor that erupted, a new plan emerged —the Legislature would consider spending plans and decide what funding to accept and what to deny. Such oversight is critical to making sure this financial windfall does not turn into an obligation in two years when the money runs out.

In her initial announcement, Gov. Palin’s rationale for turning down the money was that it had strings attached. It would require new regulations and could balloon government and the organizations receiving money by creating new jobs and programs that don’t have a source of funding other than this one-time infusion of federal cash.

Speculation about Gov. Palin’s possible national political motives aside, those are valid points and important pitfalls to guard against. It is entirely appropriate and crucial, in fact, that there be scrutiny on this funding and accountability on how it’s spent, to ensure it is used as intended to boost the economy and help those most in need, not as a one-time, free-for-all of frivolous spending.

Had Gov. Palin communicated her concerns with expectant recipients beforehand, she would have been told at the outset what she’s heard in public outcry since — the money will be put to good use. In education, especially, the extra funding would be in channeled through existing federal programs, which brings with it more rules and regulations regarding its use than the state or Legislature would have need or desire to create for itself. Other agencies are also more than willing to conform to the governor’s wish that the money not create costs down the road.

The state is on the right path in scrutinizing the stimulus money and safeguarding that the boon doesn’t become a burden.

But Palin would have done herself and her administration a huge favor by treading lightly down this path, instead of kicking up the dust storm that’s obscured this issue.

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