Invisible Stimulus in Fly-Over Towns

Salena Zito
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Posted: Jun 20, 2010 12:01 AM
Invisible Stimulus in Fly-Over Towns

LEADVILLE, Colo. – A handful of days after the opening of Independence Pass, the dramatic highway separating this old mining town from Aspen, 15-foot snowdrifts still line the narrow roadway even as the temperature climbs to 60 degrees.

Below the 13,000-foot peaks ringing the pass, a large home-made sign grabs a traveler’s attention. “Vote Obama? Embarrassed Yet?” dominates the front-yard of a home on the edge of town.

Welcome to “fly-over” country, that nation’s midsection which Washington only views from the air and never really experiences on the ground.

President Obama may parachute in sporadically for invite-only town-hall meetings to promote “Recovery Summer,” but that doesn’t count as real anywhere in fly-over country.

As the administration kicks off a six-week push to reinvigorate its stimulus narrative, it will showcase jobs accompanying stimulus-funded projects to improve highways, parks and other public works. Yet stimulus dollars never hit the ground here, either.

Rush Limbaugh

“We didn't receive any of the stimulus money,” said Leadville Mayor Bud Elliot. “We weren't eligible because we are considered too poor of a community.”

Elliott, a Democrat, says the American Recovery Act was “designed to help large cities, not small-town America.”

Leadville once thrived as a mining town; its Old West charm remains remarkably intact. Described proudly by locals as “a hard-drinking town where most people own at least 3 guns,” its economy now rests on tourism.

Aspen transplant Chad Rose, 28, is puzzled that such a well-polished political campaign in 2008 that promised so much has failed to connect so spectacularly: “I know that we weren't voting for this much spending. In fact, we were voting against it.”

An Orlando, Fla., native, who began his career in finance on Wall Street, Rose wonders where the stimulus money really went.

“You had to be shovel-ready. We are small town, (so) we weren't,” Elliott said after attending a three-day seminar to see if his area could reap new jobs from stimulus-funded projects.

“The stimulus program had very little stimulus,” says Carnegie Mellon University political economy professor Allan Meltzer. Its largest item was a transfer to pay for state budget deficits, he explains, and “Transferring the deficit from the state to the federal budget doesn't do much.”

The relief for states was temporary; this year, as many as 300,000 teachers may be terminated for lack of funding.

Public policy is supposed to be about fixing problems, a deliberate plan of action by the government to address an issue. To fix a problem, you must change people's behavior.

“The stimulus spent a lot of money, ran up the deficit and debt and, worst of all, generally did not change people's behaviors,” said Keystone College political-science professor Jeff Brauer. “That's bad public policy.”

If the stimulus was deemed so necessary, then the money should have gone entirely to much-needed infrastructure improvements. At least then, we’d have something to show for it.

“More importantly, it would change people's behaviors,” Brauer said, explaining that businesses – particularly small businesses – would create new jobs that would lead to more permanent employment.

Leadville’s Elliott would have loved to see stimulus money used for infrastructure projects across the country, not just in his town: “You could say I am somewhat disappointed in this administration so far.”

Three-hundred miles down the road, the mayor of Lamar, Colo., says his town created its own stimulus to boost spending within the city limits. The town of 10,000 also did not receive any federal stimulus dollars.

“Very little of what Washington does helps us out here,” said Mayor Roger Stagner. “While there is always an expectation that you might get help, our economy depends on ourselves.”

Keystone College’s Brauer says fly-over voters, especially those who supported Obama, feel a major disconnect with the administration. “They wanted Washington to tighten its belt and balance its books, just as they have had to do with their own families in these tough economic times.”

What they got was more out-of-control deficit spending, with no regard for the implications.

“And worse than that,” he adds, “they are not seeing the benefits of this deficit spending. It’s not giving them better lives, it’s not fixing the problems.”

Traveling from one end of Colorado to the other along highways large, small and barely navigable, shiny new “Project funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act” signs dot the roads – with no visible evidence of recent, current or coming construction.

Yet in the shadow of Pikes Peak, on the outskirts of Cimarron Hills, another oversized homemade sign expressing displeasure with the White House blows in the wind.