Thursday, April 23, 2009

Officials Discuss Impact of Federal Stimulus Plan

By Conor Greene

To make sense of the federal stimulus plan, two Queens lawmakers held a town hall meeting last week to explain how the American Recovery and Investment Act of 2009 will impact the average resident.

Rep. Anthony Weiner and Senator Joseph Addabbo met with several dozen residents last Wednesday afternoon in PS 254 in Woodhaven. They explained that the $787 billion will result in about $24 billion in aid to New York State, with about $5 billion coming to the city. Of the money coming to the state, about $6.2 billion will be used to help bridge the $17.7 billion budget deficit. The money must be spent over the next two years.

State officials are “still working to allocate the dollars effectively” and in a “transparent” manner, said Addabbo (D-Howard Beach). He called the aid “one shot for the most part” but both lawmakers said they hope this stimulus plan will have longer lasting impacts compared to the previous stimulus plan under the Bush Administration.

The money can be used for several purposes, including helping bridge state budget gaps, to prevent cuts to healthcare and education, for energy and infrastructure projects, for public safety and for housing and foreclosure prevention – something Addabbo called a “rising issue in our surrounding communities.” The money will primarily be distributed through 25 state agencies and the Governor’s Office, with the federal government overseeing some areas.

Weiner explained that there are several goals for the bill which “all need to be done in concert” to reverse the economy’s “downward direction.” The first is to provide money to states to avoid “giant slashing of their budgets.” However, he stressed that the “federal government didn’t do New York State any big favors – this is your money that’s been shortchanged.”

The bill is also intended to create jobs through construction projects including roads, bridges and schools, said Weiner, adding that the dual benefit is “having people at work” and having something to show in return for the cost. “They’re going to get a better state,” he said, in contrast to the tax cuts for the wealthy and the Iraq war, for which we have nothing to show.

Along those lines, the bill is also intended to provide tax cuts for the middle class. “We want to make sure people here have a few dollars in their pocket so they can go out to the neighborhood shopping strip,” said Weiner, adding that the top 2% will get no relief under the plan. “Every single middle class resident of Queens has something coming to them in that bill.”

Instead of receiving the entire relief within a single check, however, the relief is coming in the form of a reduction in federal withholdings in each paycheck over the next nine quarters, starting now. Those not working will receive the relief in their tax return at the end of the year. Last time, said Weiner, the stimulus plan helped China, not America. “It didn’t have the true stimulating month-by-month effect we hope this will have.”

Several residents asked if the money could help prevent some of the drastic service cuts the MTA is considering under its budget. Specifically, residents at the meeting were concerned about the impact of cuts to the B52 bus, which runs along Jamaica Avenue, and the Z Train.

Weiner explained that “the short answer is no” since the stimulus can only be used for capital projects, such as repainting the tracks the run above the avenue. He said the problem is a restriction against using federal dollars to help support MTA operations, which lawmakers “need to reverse.” Under the plan, the MTA is receiving about $1 billion for capital projects.

Addabbo said the looming MTA cuts will “have to be addressed in Albany… Certainly we’re not going to sit on the sidelines” as deep cuts are made. “I don’t believe the MTA is very good at accounting,” he added. “You’re handing them a lot of money… and then they’re back a year from now talking about [additional] fare increases and service cuts.”

The lawmakers also addressed the recent closings of St. John’s and Mary Immaculate hospitals and said the stimulus bill doesn’t provide money towards hospitals. “I think the government has done a terrible job,” said Weiner. “There is a shortage of healthcare in New York… we’re going to realize it’s a heck of a lot cheaper to keep it open. I think it was a huge mistake.”

Addabbo said the state Health Department made it clear that “they wanted out” after providing millions of dollars in funding the struggling hospitals over the past few years. “To me that was the easy way out, to stop funding and let it close. It’s something the state government is going to have to try to find a way.”

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