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Stim-u-lust

Principle aside, federal money looks good to local leaders

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The $789 billion stimulus package that President Barack Obama signed into law Tuesday in Denver did not warm the hearts of all local Republican leaders.

"This spending bill is a sorry substitute for a comprehensive economic stimulus plan to help American families and businesses," U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn said in a Feb. 13 news release heralding his "no" vote on the measure.

At a meeting the day before, Jim Bensberg, El Paso County commission chair, held up a newspaper predicting $3 trillion in total spending on the stimulus, bank bailouts and other economic measures.

"I just find it staggering that the federal government is engaging in this kind of spending," the commissioner said. "I just think this is outrageous."

But such sentiments take on a different tenor when you consider that many local GOP officials now want a spot at the stimulus-spending trough.

"It's incredibly hypocritical," says Jason DeGroot, chair of the El Paso County Democratic Party. Despite public posturing against spending, "in the back rooms, they seem to understand that they need this."

The United States Conference of Mayors, a national organization of city leaders, compiled a list in January of city-level infrastructure projects that, with stimulus funds, could quickly boost the economy. (A watchdog group conveniently posted the numbers at stimuluswatch.org.)

Requests from Springs leaders total more than $1.3 billion, which is four times the value of Denver's requests and more than half of the state total from 12 cities.

City Councilor Jerry Heimlicher says the thought was to put in everything that might qualify, to see what shakes out.

"We want everything but the kitchen sink," Heimlicher quips.

He knows the city won't get that. According to the U.S. Senate Democratic Policy Committee, Colorado should see around $2 billion, divided into investments for infrastructure, education and other needs. About $600 million is intended for infrastructure and science, with $404 million of that dedicated to highway projects.

Colorado Springs' wish list for transportation projects alone reaches $900 million.

Stacey Stegman, a Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman, explains the complications of divvying out the $404 million. More than $100 million will be shared among three Front Range regional government associations, allocated according to population. The Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, serving El Paso, Teller and Park counties, will get only about $13 million of that.

The remainder of nearly $300 million will be divided according to complicated formulas that factor in truck traffic, miles of lanes and other transportation details. That means around $51 million for other road projects in the Pikes Peak region, Pueblo and elsewhere in southeastern Colorado.

Considering that the city needs $125 million just to widen and make interchange improvements to Woodmen Road, the federal money might end up looking less than stimulating.

"This is what you would see in a good, robust construction season in Colorado," Stegman says, adding that the stimulus will basically help offset recent cuts in transportation spending and the effects of the state's budget shortfall.

Even with competing demands for the money, Heimlicher says he's hopeful that the Springs will benefit.

"I would say the needs of the community are very great," he says.

He acknowledges that a populace "less likely" to vote for tax increases might've brought some of these needs upon themselves: "The good news is, that wasn't in the selection criteria."

lane@csindy.com

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