Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is Senior Editor for Politics & Policy for WNYC News. She has previously served as Metro Editor, Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
POTUS stops by the Recovery Act Implementation Conference in EEOB to deliver brief remarks.
When pool arrived in room at EEOB, Matt Rogers, senior advisor to the secretary of Energy for Recovery Act Spending, was speaking to the group and answering questions.
Rogers got word that POTUS arrived and stopped mid-sentence to say, "a special guest" was about to come on stage - POTUS. When POTUS walked out around 11:10 a.m., attendees were surprised - there was a collective gasp in the room.
POTUS spoke for about 5 minutes. Transcript from WH forthcoming. “I just wanted to stop by and say hello,” POTUS said to a standing, applauding audience. He talked about their task of making sure the stimulus funds are spent properly and not wasted. He reiterated that if the administration finds funds being misallocated, they will “call it out” and make it public. POTUS stood at a podium and did not use a teleprompter for his remarks.
He shook a few hands in the front row before leaving, as he did on his way in.
Rogers made a joke after POTUS’s exit that continuing his Q&A would be a tough segue from POTUS.
Lunch lid until 12:20.Pool Report #2 - March 12, 2009
After the vice president left the recovery conference, the rest of the morning was spent hearing from OMB, Department of Energy, HHS and Department of Education officials.
About 125 state officials were in the room, which made it almost completely filled. The format was federal officials would speak about their departments' progress in doling out money and about upcoming deadlines, then take questions.
Up first after Biden was Rob Nabors, deputy director of OMB, who actually went right to questions, taking about 25 of them.
Most of the questions - both for Nabors and the other officials - were simply too much for your poor pooler's brain to understand, so please excuse my limited comprehension. Also please excuse the lack of names associated with questions — because of the format and the rapid-fire questions, it was impossible to get any names.
Among the questions your pooler did comprehend were:
President Obama ducked into the meeting at 11:09. You all already have pool report and transcript from that appearance.
Other things worth noting, for those who care:
Matt Rogers, senior advisor to the Energy secretary for recovery act spending, said they define money being spent as when it is "costed."
"It must be costed. So we are going to obligate the funds to you and then those funds must be costed - you must have committed to spend the funds beyond that."
Others who spoke in the morning session were Richard Turman, deputy assistant secretary for budget at HHS and Dennis Williams, deputy assistant secretary for recovery act coordination at HHS; and Tony Miller, chief operating officer at the Department of Education.
There were presentations and paper from each official. I have them available if anyone wants a copy/to take a look.
Finally, per a VP aide, the one state that didn't send anyone to the conference was Idaho: "Idaho didn't have the resources to send someone to today's conference."Pool Report #3 - March 12, 2009
Summary of remarks from Valerie Jarrett and presentation by reps from Transportation, Agriculture, Justice, Interior, HUD, Labor, and EPA. In the last pool report, I'll include the DHS presentation along with remarks from Earl Devaney, chairman of the RAT board. I wanted to get this out before it got too late.
Bonus: Full list of state representative attendees at bottom.
No real news, though twin themes emerged. The White House and agency reps issued dire warnings about what will happen if states misuse or waste stimulus money. And state reps, continuing a theme from the morning, expressed confusion about what role states will play when it comes to getting stimulus money to localities, what reporting requirements they'll face, and said there has been a lack of communication so far between the feds and the state government about projects that have so far been announced.
"You're giving governors a lot of responsibility to administer it, but we're not always kept in the loop," said a representative from New Hampshire who refused to give me her name when I went and asked.
However, on the list of attendees, the only female representative from New Hampshire was Pamela Walsh, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Lynch.
The afternoon session (1 p.m. to 5:30) began with another pep talk from a top White House official. Valerie Jarrett popped in and out to give a short speech about how important it is for the states to steward the stimulus funds responsibly.
"In the event that we have missteps, you can be sure that those will be the ones that the press focuses on ... so we just have to make sure we are flawless in the execution," Jarrett said.
Jarrett also pointed out that while Biden is directing the oversight of stimulus spending, along with Earl Devaney, Cecilia Munoz from intergovernmental affairs is the point of contact for the state czars who have been appointed by governors to oversee their state's receipt and disbursement of the billions of dollars.
"i hope she will become a familiar face to you," Jarrett said of Munoz, who stayed at least for the first 30 minute presentation from the Transportation Department.
"In terms of day to day business, feel free to reach out to cecilia and the rest of the members of her team," Jarrett said.
Each of the agencies presented and took questions for about 30 minutes. First up: Transportation, with their motherlode of infrastructure spending.
Adm. Thomas Barrett, deputy secretary, stood at podium but deflected a lot of questions to Joel Szabat, deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy, and associate highway administrator Gloria Shepherd.
Barrett also emphasized the need to avoid screwups.
"Frankly we cannot afford to fail on this ... There is no room for projects that are going to look stupid or be stupid .. I just encourage you, please pay attention," he said.
"It's buying the spa treatments and charging it to a federal contract," Barrett said, somewhat jarringly.
Barrett then faced a number of questions about reporting requirements and whether state governments and state transit agencies are going to both be doing reporting to the feds, and whether that might be duplicative.
Shepherd said states should do reporting on how they spend money but one state rep said transit agencies are saying they are going to do the reporting, adding that "it's sort of like there's a disconnect."
There was more back and forth, and Barrett said, "if there's confusion on it," and was cut off by one of the state reps: "There certainly is."
Another man asked how and why Maryland has already started transportation projects under stimulus, going back to the morning session's theme where some states are nervous they've missed opportunities to fund projects, or are behind the curve.
"They started using their own money," Barrett said.
"So we can do that?" the man said.
"If you have the money," Barrett said.
Baznat said that if contracts have been awarded on or after Feb. 19, the day the stimulus passed, they could be eligible for reimbursement under the program, but that this will have to go through a clearance process, and said this is a risk.
Carole Jett, deputy chief of staff at agriculture, was up next. She faced a barrage of questions about how the federal government is going to notify state governments and governor's offices when state agencies receive funding under the program.
Shaun McGrath, Cecilia Munoz's deputy for governors, asked Danny Wuerffel (spelling?) from OMB, who was sitting in the back, whether when a grant was handed out, whether there is "a way to notify the states that that has actually happened."
Wuerffel tried to answer, but when he asked if that had helped, a large murmur rose up from the room, with people saying, basically, no.
The New Hampshire rep gave an example of a $6 million grant to an agency in her state announced, I think by the federal government, that they were getting calls about but didn't know about.
"You're giving governors a lot of responsibility to administer it, but we're not always kept in the loop," she said.
"So the issue is an advanced timeline of things coming down the pike?" Wuerffel asked.
Another state rep said: "I think it's pretty simple. Any time you're going to tell the congressional delegation, tell us at the same time." The room cracked up.
Laurie Robinson's Justice presentation and Chris Henderson's Interior presentation were uneventful, though one state rep reminded Henderson, a senior adviser to the secretary for economic recovery, that governor's offices should be notified of projects: "If there are ribbon cuttings we'd like to promote them."
Bruce Katz, on loan from the Brookings Institution to HUD, was a few minutes late, so Wuerffel came up and answered some more questions.
Wuerffel said that OMB is "working, sometimes through the night" to figure out how to collect information on usage of the stimulus money and how to make it reportable.
"Once we get the information how do we process it and turn it into presentations on recovery.gov?" he said.
OMB is getting different opinions on how to do this from federal agencies and state governments, Wuerffel said, but they hope to have guidance out within one month.
Katz's presentation did not involve anything that stood out, though I have his handout (along with all or most of the others) if anyone wants to look at it.
Raymond Uhalde, senior advisor, office of the secretary of labor, was up next. I missed most of that because I was taking down all the names of attendees. I did not get his handout.
The EPA's Craig Hooks, acting asst administrator, was second to last. He said they were "almost ready to put our grant guides out the door" but said they were still waiting from guidance on a few details from OMB.
One of Hooks' slides had an acronym: LUST. Leaking Underground Storage Tanks. - $200 million to clean up spills of petroleum from federally regulated tanks.
"We try never to say that one in public," Hooks said.
LIST OF STATE REPS - please check for accuracy, though I'm pretty sure I got them mostly right.