By Kirk Ross
Back in the district after six weeks focusing on the recently passed and signed stimulus package, Fourth District U.S. Congressman David Price said since his return he has heard a good number of stories of how the economy has reshaped the lives of constituents.
That was clear a few minutes into a conversation at Cup of Joe at Timberlyne in Chapel Hill, when a recent state government retiree approached him to ask if she should worry about the state retirement plan.
While noting that the pension plan is in the hands of the state government, Price tried to be reassuring. He said the stimulus package was designed in part to help states meet the challenge of flagging revenues and growing demand for services and provide relief for those hit by layoffs and cutbacks.
The link between the recent stimulus bill and state and local governments has been the theme of a series of town hall meetings Price is holding throughout the Fourth District, which includes all of Orange and Durham counties and portions of Chatham and Wake counties. In an hour-long discussion with The Citizen, the congressman discussed the potential effects of the bill, along with whatâ€™s next on the agenda for Congress and the Obama administration.
According to Price, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed into law by President Obama on Tuesday, means additional transportation and school funding at the local level as well as a sizeable contribution toward plugging the hole in the state budget.
School districts will receive direct payments for renovation and repairs through a formula based on their Title One student populations. The bill also includes provisions to improve the marketability of state and local government bonds for infrastructure projects and a new bond-financing program for school construction, rehabilitation and repair. Many local governments and school systems in the state, including the Town of Chapel Hilll and Chatham County Schools, have backed off construction plans in the past year because of concerns about the bond market.
Price said transportation money in the stimulus plan should be beneficial to Chapel Hill Transit and the Triangle Transit Authority. North Carolina will see about $900 million in transportation funding, Price said. â€œA lot of that is for bridges and highways, but thereâ€™s also [money] for bus replacement that should help Chapel Hill Transit and TTA.â€
UNC-Chapel Hill and other research universities will also benefit from National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation money in the bill.
â€œItâ€™s hard to say how much, because those funds are competitively awarded,â€ Price said. But researchers in the Triangle should be well positioned to win some of the contracts.
Price, a member of the House Appropriations Committee and chair of the subcommittee that oversees funding for the Department of Homeland Security, said he would like to have had more time with the bill and seen a higher degree of bipartisan support. None of his Republican colleges in the House voted for the measure.
One criticism was that the bill was pushed through in six weeks.
â€œI would have liked to have had 12 weeks, but this is an emergency situation,â€ he said. â€œEven six weeks seems like a long time when youâ€™re losing tens of thousands of jobs every day.â€
The debate was often principled, he said, but also marked by stark differences in ideology, including a â€œpre-New Dealâ€ mentality on the part of some opponents.
The results of attempts at bipartisanship are â€œnot encouraging,â€ he said. â€œThe price of getting Republican support [on the stimulus bill] was pretty high.â€ In the end, he said, the move probably trimmed the numbers of jobs created or retained due to the bill by hundreds of thousands.
Price said that the stimulus negotiations are an example of how retirements and the recent election have reshaped the ranks of the House GOP. Few moderates remain, he said.
â€œThe Republican membership is pretty hard core.â€
Looking ahead, Price said Congress and the president are likely to take up health care and energy policy along with winding down the war in Iraq. Several pieces of key legislation are also up for reauthorization in this session, including the Surface Transportation Act and No Child Left Behind, which, he said, needs major changes.
As part of the regular appropriations process, Price said heâ€™ll continue to find ways to strengthen the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Although he voted against including FEMA in the massive Department of Homeland Security, Price said itâ€™s probably not time to â€œunscramble the eggs.â€
The congressman also favors a review of the way local sheriffs are working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and expects the Obama administration to work toward more comprehensive immigration reform.
Price said that getting local sheriffs and local governments involved in immigration issues is the result of the failure of the federal government to enact comprehensive reform.
â€œIt requires a federal solution,â€ Price said.