January 19, 2009 8:55 AM
I went to Washington this week for the winter meeting of the Mayors Innovation Project. But since I was there I made it a point to stop in to see our representatives on the Hill, Tammy Baldwin, Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl. It's a little early for this kind of lobbying visit because Congress is just getting organized, but I wanted to take the opportunity to put in a word for Madison in the big stimulus package that the Congress and the incoming Obama administration are developing.
My pitch was for one basic policy: give cities a chance to see what we can do with some substantial portion of the package. Don't funnel it all through the states. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that channeling the money through another level of bureaucracy will just slow it down and one of the most basic ideas behind the stimulus is to, well, stimulate the economy now. The other reason is that Madison tends not to fare all that well when money is channeled through the state.
I also dropped off our list of potential projects. Now, this is not an actual wish list because Congress won't earmark specific projects. What they'll do is channel the money to various programs and then states and local governments can decide how the resources should be used. But I did highlight three projects on our list of dozens of projects that I think are especially important.
The Central Library. Thanks to the request for proposal process that is currently underway we should have a "shovel ready" project in a few weeks. Moreover, because of its price tag this is a project that probably wouldn't happen (or at least wouldn't happen anytime soon) without the stimulus money. And it will put a lot of people to work in family supporting jobs to get it built. This is the poster child for what the stimulus package could accomplish.
High Speed Rail. This again is shovel ready with the state share already set aside, and the environmental impact statements done. We're dusting off plans for stations in Madison, and we'll be ready to go as soon as the Feds come through with their share. Imagine getting to Milwaukee or Chicago via clean, fast trains. You could be riding in about three years from the word go from the Feds.
Energy Efficiency Improvements. Center on Wisconsin Strategy head Joel Rogers has been promoting a plan to essentially pay it forward when it comes to making our homes more energy efficient. (Joel is also most of the brains behind the MIP while Ald. Satya Rhodes Conway organizes both the content and logistics of the meetings as part of her day job at COWS.) The idea is to offer free energy audits for homeowners. Then when the energy audit plan is carried out the money for the projects (maybe new windows and insulation, for example) gets paid from a central source (maybe from the exciting new Energy Efficiency Block Grants that are part of the House version of the stimulus.) The homeowners pay the money back, but if it's done right their payments combined with their lower energy bills are still lower than their energy bills alone would have been before their homes became more efficient.
Anyone can get information from the MIP conference by going to the Mayors Innovation Project website. The topics we covered this time had to do with how cities could be more resilient through the remainder of this recession, and more importantly, how we could emerge even stronger.
If there was one take home theme that resonated through all our discussions it was the idea - though not actually articulated in just this way by anyone - of transformative recovery. As Van Jones, our keynote speaker said, the economic bubble burst because it was based on consumption, foreign credit, and environmental destruction. Now that that bubble has burst, our goal should not be just to rebuild the old economy, which was based on so many unsustainable foundations. Instead, we should build an economy based on production, thrift and environmental sustainability.