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Warthen: Going after the stimulus

WOLF BLITZER: Should South Carolina take the money?

GRAHAM: I think that, yes, from my point of view, I — you don’t want to be crazy here. I mean, if there’s going to be money on the table that will help my state....

— CNN, Wednesday

LINDSEY Graham said that in spite of his strong opposition to the stimulus bill as passed. His aide Kevin Bishop explained the senator’s position this way: “South Carolina accepts the money, future generations of South Carolinians are responsible for paying it back. South Carolina refuses the money, future generations of South Carolinians are still responsible for paying it back.”

Good point. And now it’s time to think about how South Carolina gets its share.

A number of local leaders were already thinking about, and working on, that issue while debate raged in Washington. Columbia Mayor Bob Coble and University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides led a group of local leaders who came to see us about that last week. (It included Paul Livingston of Richland County Council; Neil McLean of EngenuitySC; John Lumpkin of NAI Avant; Tameika Isaac Devine of Columbia City Council; John Parks of USC Innovista; Bill Boyd of the Waterfront Steering Committee; Judith Davis of BlueCross BlueShield; Ike McLeese of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce; and attorney Kyle Michel.)

The group, dubbed the “Sustainability and Green Jobs Initiative,” sees the stimulus as a chance to get funding for projects they have been promoting for the advancement of the Columbia area, from Innovista to riverfront development, from streetscaping to hydrogen power research.

The idea is to make sure these local initiatives, which the group sees as synching perfectly with such national priorities as green energy and job creation, are included in the stimulus spending.

Mayor Coble, who had already set up a “war room” in his office (President Pastides said he was setting up a similar operation at USC, concentrating on grant-writing) to track potential local projects and likely stimulus funding streams, saw little point in waiting around for the final version of the bill, saying we already knew what “90 percent” of it would be, whatever the conference committee came up with.

Some specifics: Mayor Coble first mentions the North Main streetscaping project, which is already under way. President Obama wants shovel-ready projects? Well, says Mayor Bob, “The shovel’s already out there” on North Main. Stimulus funding would ensure the project could be completed without interruption.

He said other city efforts that could be eligible for stimulus funds included fighting homelessness, extending broadband access to areas that don’t have it, hiring more police officers and helping them buy homes in the neighborhoods they serve.

But the biggest potential seems to lie in the areas where the city and the university are trying to put our community on the cutting edge of new energy sources and green technology. With the city about to host the 2009 National Hydrogen Association Conference and Hydrogen Expo, Columbia couldn’t be in a better position to attract stimulus resources related to that priority.

The group was asked to what extent Gov. Mark Sanford’s opposition to stimulus funds flowing to our state created an obstacle to their efforts. “There’s no use arguing with the governor,” the mayor said. But the local group’s efforts will be focused on being ready when an opportunity for funding does come — whether via Rep. James Clyburn’s legislative end-run, or through federal agencies, or by whatever means.

President Pastides says, “The governor has deeply held beliefs and philosophies and I respect him not only for having them,” but for being straight about it and not just telling people what they want to hear. At the same time, with the university looking at cutting 300 jobs and holding open almost every vacancy, “there are almost no lifelines for me to turn to” to sustain the university’s missions. An opportunity such as the stimulus must be seized. He sees opportunities in energy, basic science and biomedical research.

As big as the stakes are for the Midlands regarding the stimulus itself, there are larger implications.

A successful local effort within the stimulus context could be just the beginning of a highly rewarding partnership with Washington, suggested attorney Kyle Michel, who handles governmental relations for EngenuitySC. He noted that many provisions in the stimulus are the thin end of the wedge on broader Obama goals. This is particularly true of the effort toward “transitioning us away from... getting our energy from the people who are shooting at us,” which he describes as the administration’s highest goal. “What are we going to do over the next four years to play our part in that goal of the Obama administration? Because this 43 or 49 billion is just the start.”

He also said what should be obvious by now: “If we don’t draw that money down... it doesn’t go back to the taxpayer. It goes to other states.”

President Pastides said, “This is almost like someone has announced a race with a really big prize at the end,” and you don’t win the prize just for entering; you have to compete. That appeals to him, and he’s eager for the university and the community to show what they can do.

This group is focused less on the ideological battle in which our governor is engaged, and more on the practical benefits for this part of South Carolina. It’s good to know that someone is.

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