Pres. Barack Obama’s plan for yet another round (!) of stimulus spending, this time focused on highway infrastructure work, is, like so many products of this administration, something other than what it seems. What Obama is proposing is another backdoor bailout for spendthrift states, such as his political home state of Illinois, giving them large injections of federal money so that they can redirect spending that would be dedicated to highway projects to other areas—e.g., to the government-employees’ unions that are Obama’s most loyal constituency. Call it “No Blue-State Appropriator or Union Goon Left Behind, Part Whatever.”
The highway system in particular (and the transportation racket more generally) is a source of endless financial shenanigans and a rich seam of political patronage to be mined by Obama’s allies at the state and local levels. The federal highway system is maintained by a combination of federal and state spending (in a few cases, local spending as well) with the bulk of the states’ money coming from gasoline taxes and fees levied on car owners. Illinois, for example, levies a 39-cents-a-gallon tax on gas (the sixth highest in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation), and it also applies its general sales tax (another 6.25 percent) to gas. Once you figure in the total tax burden, government levies are probably a bigger contributor to the price of a gallon of gas in Illinois than is the crude oil from which it is distilled. So, what does Illinois get for its money?
Part of what it gets is the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), one of those wonderfully, comically inept state agencies that does things that make political analysts laugh and taxpayers weep: things like deciding to suddenly stop doing roadwork because they are out of gas money (irony!) or threaten to start leaving roadkill on the highways unless the state gives them another $20 million.
Highway maintenance is important, of course. But that’s not all that IDOT does with its money. For instance, IDOT helps to maintain a vast network of full-employment programs for petty bureaucrats, called “regional planning agencies.” Every region in the state has one, and they are not small: The Chicago version lists 94 staffers on its website. Its budget of $16.7 million comes mostly from IDOT ($3.8 million) and the Federal Highway Administration ($11.5 million), with money reshuffled from other government agencies, local levies, and our friends over at the Environmental Protection Agency (no, really!) kicking in another $1 million or so. Nearly a hundred bureaucrats spending state transportation money, FHA money, and EPA schmundo, doing . . . what? Overseeing roadwork? Not exactly.
Because our entire government is turning into a bank, IDOT is in the business of making low-interest loans and grants for business-related projects that it likes under its Economic Development Program (EDP). These are supposed to be transportation-oriented projects, but “economic development” is a famously elastic definition under which to operate.
May I give you a little flavor for how carefully this economic-development business is managed? Here’s an excerpt from the minutes of a recent meeting of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, or CMAP. Mr. Blankenhorn is CMAP’s executive director, Ms. Powell its chairman:
Mr. Blankenhorn said IDOT’s FY2010-11 budget includes $5 million to fund Metropolitan Planning Organizations statewide, with CMAP due to receive $3.5 million of that. He said the drawback is that all the money is supposed to be used for transportation planning, and while some of CMAP’s programs, such as community and economic development, can be tied in, most cannot. He said IDOT has promised to be flexible in what spending it will allow, but it’s really up to the General Assembly to provide funding for an agency it created to do more than transportation planning. He urged CAC members to mention the need for funding other areas if they meet with their legislators or people in leadership roles at other state agencies. Mr. Mellis asked if this means CMAP is fully funded for next year. Mr. Blankenhorn said the funding is buried in IDOT’s budget, but it’s in there. Ms. Powell said CMAP is technically not fully funded if it has programs it can’t pay for. Mr. Blankenhorn agreed and said he will no longer use the term‚ fully funded.
Buried in its budget, but they’ll be flexible! Sweet.
So, what does CMAP spend money on? Personnel, mostly — more than half of its budget goes to salaries and compensation: Just over $9.3 million is budgeted for FY2011, or about $100,000 for each of the 94 staffers listed. (I’m looking to see how lavishly compensated the top staffers are and will update you when I get the information.) If you start pumping billions of dollars into bridges and highway resurfacing, you free up a lot of money for the CMAPs and such of the world. But given the sorry record of previous “shovel ready” stimulus programs, don’t be surprised if the bridge-and-blacktop stuff is skipped altogether and the money goes straight into “community development” projects.
This is the sort of horsepucky upon which President Obama proposes to lavish another $50 billion. Stop him.
– Kevin D. Williamson is deputy managing editor of National Review.