Take the Money and Run

Republican governors don’t really want to reject stimulus money—they just want to complain about it.

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford

Turning down money is not supposed to be in a governor’s DNA. (Most states are legally required to balance their budgets every year.) But that’s what six Republican governors have hinted they will do once stimulus money starts rolling in.

“I’m better off not to get it,” said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin opposed the stimulus bill because it’s “not fair to Alaskans to create expectations about programs that wouldn’t be sustainable.” Other governors, like Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Perry of Texas, said they were concerned about conditional funding. “My concern is there’s going to be commitments attached to it that are a mile long,” said Perry. “We need the freedom to pick and choose. And we need the freedom to say ‘No thanks.’ “

None of the governors said what provisions in the bill they’d oppose. So it’s worth taking a look at what, exactly, they’d be turning down.

Say that all six governors—we’re talking Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Alaska, Idaho, and Louisiana—rejected the stimulus outright. They would be saying “no” to a collective 424,000 jobs, according to White House estimates. They’d also be sniffing at a total of $3.8 billion for highways and bridges, $559 million for public transit, and $1.5 billion for education. And that’s not including state-specific projects like Louisiana’s $460 million for flood protection efforts, which include building locks and dams as well as coastal restoration. All told, they would be rejecting an estimated $69 billion.

You’d have to be crazy to turn down that kind of money, especially when states are so strapped. (Louisiana faces a $1.6 billion budget shortfall next year.) And so many of the GOP governors have backtracked. As much as it might offend them ideologically, they are willing to accept this federal largesse for the greater good of the citizens of [insert state here], who face unprecedented hardship as blah blah blah.

That’s not a direct quote. But their rhetoric leaves the distinct impression that it is more than ideology that is driving their about-face. Maybe, just maybe, some of these guys are running for president.

Perry, whose name has been floated as a possible 2012’er, notified the White House on Wednesday that Texas would accept the stimulus money after all. Following some thought, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who was on John McCain’s short list for vice president, also said he’d be OK taking the money. But he’s not happy about it. Bobby Jindal, whose name is never more than 10 words away from “2012,” seems more concerned about displaying skepticism than depriving constituents of desperately needed funds. Likewise, no one actually expects Sarah Palin to turn down her state’s cut of the stimulus.

A few may still reject this federal generosity for purely ideological reasons. Barbour slashed $90 million in education spending from the Mississippi state budget last month—what’s another $132 million? (A spokesman said his main concern is about paying benefits to part-time employees who are laid off.) Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter is famously libertarian. “I vote not just no but hell no,” he once said in opposing an anti-pornography law. He even opposed drug laws: By restricting freedom, he said, “the government, in effect, is taking away the only real gift the Lord gave us.”

But some have managed—or attempted—to have it both ways. Sanford argued that taking money from the stimulus package he opposed doesn’t make him any less ideologically pure: “There are a lot of Democrats that voted against tax cuts and yet they don’t go back to their states and their congressional districts and tell their folks, ‘Look you can’t take the tax cut because if so it’ll undo what I believe.’ ”

Luckily, these governors don’t have to suffer the political consequences of turning down much-needed funds. They’re insulated by a provision in the bill that says if a governor doesn’t request spending within 45 days, the state legislature can accept the cash on its own. (Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina inserted the measure when Sanford made noises about rejecting the funds. *) So the governors get a twofer: They get to show their ideological stripes by rejecting the money (or at least frowning really hard), and they get to spend it!

Of course, it’s doubtful a governor would even wait the requisite 45 days. A state economy can plummet within that time, and no chief executive wants to take the blame for calamity. Better to register vague doubts, change a line or two in the language, and cash in. Presidential campaigns have been built on less.

Correction, Feb. 20, 2009: This article originally identified Rep. Clyburn as a senator.