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September 1, 2014

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What the stimulus plan would mean for Nevada

Billions for schools, transportation, health care, higher ed — and jobs

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AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington to discuss the stimulus package.

Washington’s promise of a massive stimulus package to help turn around the nation’s economy is paying dividends in Nevada. For the first time in a long time, Nevadans are expecting good economic news.

The $819 billion legislation approved by the Democratic majority in the House and pending in the Senate promises money for schools and roads and food stamps and unemployment benefits and college tuition and a long list of other items no one in Nevada or Washington seems yet able to grasp.

But the promise that aid — about $4.3 billion by some estimates — would be coming this way had Nevada in a state of eager anticipation Wednesday. Everyone, it seems, had the same questions: Exactly how much money, and when and where would it go?

U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., released figures showing that the money would create more than 62,000 jobs in Nevada — a staggering number in a state with an unemployment rate of more than 9 percent. U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley highlighted the bill’s “Making Work Pay” tax cuts for 950,000 Nevadans, up to $1,000 for each married couple and up to $500 per individual.

The bill also includes money that should ensure that widening and improvement plans for the valley’s three main roadways — Interstate 15, U.S. 95 and the beltway — can be carried out, Berkley noted.

This month, local jurisdictions and regional agencies — with the exception of the Clark County School District — compiled a list of “shovel-ready” projects that could move forward within 180 days if stimulus funding were provided.

But that list will have to be amended, as the jurisdictions and the state begin to prioritize which projects will benefit from stimulus dollars. The House bill included at least one “use it or lose it” provision — a requirement that 50 percent of the money for highway, aviation, transit and rail projects be obligated within 90 days.

Jacob Snow, general manager of Southern Nevada’s Regional Transportation Commission, noted that usually the federal government pays for 80 percent of a highway project and local jurisdictions have to cover the remainder, but the stimulus bill’s $218 million for Nevada highway and bridge projects doesn’t include that requirement.

Some of the transportation dollars would probably be used to help widen Interstate 15 between Blue Diamond Road and Tropicana Avenue and U.S. 95 between Rainbow Boulevard and Ann Road, said Susan Martinovich, director of the state Transportation Department. Those projects have a combined price tag of $425 million, so stimulus dollars wouldn’t cover all of the cost.

Stimulus dollars also would be applied to transportation projects that would coordinate traffic lights and add freeway signage, and worn thoroughfares that need repaving are certain to benefit from the stimulus money, Snow said.

Some of the bigger projects sought regionally, including an overhauled airport connector, may not make the cut because there would not be enough dollars to go around.

Nevada also would get at least $45 million for mass transit projects such as a new transit hub for buses and bicycles at Bonneville Avenue and Casino Center Boulevard in downtown Las Vegas; a bus line from downtown Las Vegas to downtown Henderson, called the ACE Boulder Highway Project, that will have its own lane; and park-and-ride lots with bus stops.

The RTC is to meet today to discuss prioritizing other projects. It’s one of many such meetings that are to take place in the coming weeks.

Most Nevada officials contacted by the Sun on Wednesday said it was too soon to say exactly how the stimulus money would be spent.

Dan Burns, Gov. Jim Gibbons’ spokesman, said Gibbons and high-ranking staff will meet next week to come up with a formal set of priorities for the “state fiscal stabilization fund” money that may come to Nevada, estimated at $512.8 million, along with tens of millions of dollars that would be routed through state government.

The Gibbons administration is looking at using some of the money to bolster Nevada Check Up, the health insurance program for children of the working poor; lessening the proposed 6 percent pay reduction for teachers and state workers; and reducing cuts in higher education and the K-12 system, Burns said.

Legislative leaders have yet to hammer out exactly how they’d want the money to be spent.

In many cases, existing “priority” lists add up to far more money than might be coming — and the lists haven’t really been prioritized. They have to be whittled down. Only now will leaders try to figure out which of the many needs are the most pressing and how much stimulus money could be spent on each.

The Clark County School District, for example, would get an estimated $64 million for construction and renovation, but the district has a list of about $200 million in renovations and remodeling work that’s been approved and needs funding.

The list includes $6.2 million for Charlotte Hill Elementary School, in the district’s southeast region. The school needs a new roof, said Principal Jacqueline Brown, who is in her 11th year at the East Eldorado Lane campus. And the aged heating and air-conditioning system has needed replacing for five years.

For some state agencies, it’s time to start making what Mike Willden, executive director of the Health and Human Services Department, called “add back” lists, trying to regain ground lost to proposed budget cuts.

As an example, he noted that his agency sought funding in the governor’s budget to hire nearly 500 staff members over the next two years for Medicaid, food stamp and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs, to deal with caseloads that have grown 25 percent in the past year.

As administrator of Medicaid and Nevada Check Up, health insurance programs for the growing ranks of the poor, Chuck Duarte may wind up overseeing one of the largest boosts from the stimulus package. Duarte said he had seen six estimates of how large that amount would be, ranging from $300 million to $440 million.

Hopes are to avoid the governor’s proposal to cap Nevada Check Up at 25,000 children and to raise the rates paid to doctors who care for the children, stemming the tide of doctors who decline to offer the service.

Similarly, Laura Harrison, director of Acelero Learning Clark County Head Start, said the estimated $2.8 million that may come to her program would allow her to offer the first cost-of-living increase to her staff of 255 since the Clinton administration. The local program has 13 centers with 1,700 children and a budget of $11.2 million. Harrison said the funds might also allow her to hire more staff and increase enrollment, which would allow more parents to seek work.

The stimulus package would also fund infrastructure projects, providing a benefit to all Nevadans while also creating much-needed jobs.

That includes an estimated $30 million for Nevada’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund, a loan program that pays for construction and modernization of sewer systems and waste water treatment plants. The program typically funds projects that alleviate a public health risk.

This year’s regular budget for the revolving fund is about $3 million. Last year’s was about $5 million. There are typically about 25 projects that would cost about $250 million waiting for loans from the fund.

Cindy Jones, deputy director of the Employment, Training and Rehabilitation Department, said her agency would use some of the money to ensure a trained workforce is in place to put shovels in the dirt on those and other projects to be spurred by the stimulus. That would include several million for the Southern Nevada Workforce Investment Board.

The bill also would increase unemployment benefits by $25 a week. There are currently 78,000 Nevadans receiving those benefits, about 70 percent of whom live in Clark County.

As for helping the poorest students in struggling Clark County schools, that’s the aim of Title 1 federal dollars. For the 2008-09 academic year, the district received about $60 million, enough to serve 76 campuses. The estimate is that the stimulus package would provide at least $29 million more Title 1 money for Clark County, which would mean about 15 more schools would get that money, said Susan Wright, director of Title I programs for the district.

Estimates are that the School District would get nearly $180 million in stimulus funding over a two-year period. Charlene Green, deputy superintendent of student support services, said she will be pushing to spend some of that on more job training opportunities for older special ed students, and increasing efforts to replace substitutes with certified special ed teachers. Expanding programs for autistic students would also be a priority, Green said.

Sun reporters David McGrath Schwartz, Phoebe Sweet and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

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