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Vying for a piece of the stimulus pie

Oliphant is a writer in our Washington bureau. Simon is a Times staff writer.

Since President-elect Barack Obama laid out plans for the largest injection of federal spending into the economy since the New Deal, just about everyone has started angling for a piece of the action.

With estimates of the package, which will be considered by the new Congress starting in January, topping out at anywhere between $500 billion and $1 trillion, ailing sectors such as home builders and sellers, airlines, railroads -- and, yes, the auto industry -- view the stimulus as a means to get healthy again.

That includes the air conditioning industry, America’s libraries and even catfish farmers.

All of them, and many more, have deployed lobbyists to Capitol Hill in hope of benefiting from the spending spree.

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“The ever-increasing cost of the yet-to-be-seen stimulus is like chum in the water for lobbyists circling to snap up some taxpayer cash for their clients,” said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group.

The primary goal of Obama’s stimulus is job creation. His plan, he says, could lead to 2.5 million new jobs by 2011 and rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, make school buildings more energy-efficient, modernize hospitals and extend broadband to underserved areas.

But so far, Obama has offered little in the way of specifics or a price tag. That is an opening for industry groups with no shortage of suggestions.

“It’s not very often business and government run on parallel tracks,” said Jerry Howard, chief executive of the National Assn. of Home Builders. “You’ve got to spend money to make money.”

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Much of the interest has centered on Obama’s pledge to rebuild roads, bridges and highways.

The business community, led by the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce, places the emphasis on “shovel-ready” projects that can be undertaken once funding is approved. Otherwise, the chamber says, any jolt to the economy will arrive too late.

Rather than rebuilding highways, a nonprofit group called Reconnecting America wants the government to focus on a “21st century national transportation system” of mass transit and walking and bike paths.

And a consortium of environmental groups has unveiled a $160-billion pitch for “green” stimulus, including investments in national parks, renewable fuels and energy efficiency. Just as notable is what they are lobbying against: any construction work that widens existing roads or builds new ones, which the groups contend would amount to investing in the automobile traffic that contributes to global warming.

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“We must be careful to spend this money on programs that are going to benefit both our economy and our environment,” said Colin Peppard of Friends of the Earth.

Infrastructure, however, is defined in many ways.

The Air Transport Assn. is seeking $1 billion to upgrade airports and $3 billion to modernize avionics.

Magellan Midstream Partners, owner of the longest refined-oil pipeline in the nation, wants to develop the first “dedicated ethanol pipeline” from Iowa to New York City. It’s seeking a loan guarantee of $3.5 billion through the Department of Energy.

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The National Assn. of Railroad Passengers is pushing for $10 billion for intercity passenger rail projects, including development of a high-speed train in California and funding for a high-tech braking system, which has gained new attention since the commuter train-freight train collision in Chatsworth that killed 25 people and injured 135.

“Travel stimulates the economy,” said Ross B. Capon, the group’s president.

The travel industry wants a “multimillion-dollar marketing and public outreach effort to educate visitors about changing security policies and promote the U.S. as a destination,” according to the Travel Industry Assn. The group is seeking a start-up federal loan of $10 million.

CTIA - the Wireless Assn., a trade group for wireless service providers, wants to eliminate “roadblocks to deployment of towers and other wireless infrastructure.” The industry wants to build 16,000 new towers.

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Some interests are lobbying for tax breaks to spur the economy.

For instance, the business community is seeking a series of tax breaks that it says will foster growth and return money to the federal Treasury. It favors, among other things, a tax rebate to middle-class taxpayers, a sizable reduction in the corporate capital gains tax and a sharp reduction in the tax rate on earnings that firms in the United States get from foreign subsidiaries.

The idea, according to U.S. chamber Executive Vice President R. Bruce Josten, is to propel more cash through the financial system and loosen credit markets: “There are two bookends to the economy: credit and confidence. The reality is that there’s not a whole lot of either at the moment.”

The beleaguered housing industry wants all buyers to receive a tax credit for a home purchase and to have the government subsidize mortgage rates through a “buy-down” program lowering borrowing costs. The goal is to eliminate a 12-month backlog in unsold houses.

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The Air Conditioning Contractors of America calls increased efficiency the “low-hanging fruit” in the effort to cut energy consumption and stimulate the economy. The group wants tax incentives for homeowners and businesses to upgrade heating and air conditioning systems.

The National Automobile Dealers Assn. is seeking a tax break encouraging more people to buy cars and a “cash for clunkers” program that helps people trade in older vehicles for new, more fuel-efficient ones.

“You get people buying cars again, you get the economy back on track pretty fast,” said the association’s Bailey Wood.

Then there’s the American Library Assn., seeking $100 million for libraries. “Every day, across the country, libraries are doing all kinds of things to help get America back to work,” said Melanie Anderson, the group’s associate director of government relations.

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And then there are the catfish.

“The catfish industry is on the verge of collapse,” said Marty Fuller of the Catfish Farmers of America, citing high feed prices and an increase of imports. About 6,000 jobs are at stake, mostly in economically depressed areas in states such as Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. Officials are talking about seeking $50 million in aid as a stimulus.

The risk, of course, is that any final stimulus package could become so larded with requests that nothing takes priority, or that it becomes so huge that it simply worsens the nation’s mounting budget deficit.

The bigger the better, says the Home Builders’ Howard, if the goal is economic revival.

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“I’m more concerned about Congress undershooting the goal than overshooting the goal,” Howard said. “I don’t think you can keep doing this piecemeal. I think you have to do it in one fell swoop.”

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joliphant@tribune.com

richard.simon@latimes.com

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Jim Tankersley in our Washington bureau contributed to this report.


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