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Millions go to signs flagging stimulus projects

- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2009

They're spending hundreds of billions of dollars to stimulate the economy, so Senate Democrats said Wednesday they might as well spend millions putting up signs to highlight where the money is being spent.

The road signs, which let motorists know the paving and construction projects they see are being paid for by the $787 billion economic stimulus program, have popped up across the country. In a 52-45 vote, the Senate decided the signs should stay.

"Why on earth would you want to hide from the American people the fact that the recovery package we passed is putting people to work?" asked Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, who took the lead in defending the expenditure. She said stimulus spending is beginning to improve the economy and charged that Republicans and Democrats who voted to strip out the funds are angry about that success.

"It's my sense that there's a frustration by the people who voted 'no' on the economic recovery act, the stimulus bill, there's a frustration that it's working. They predicted gloom and doom," Mrs. Boxer said.

But Sen. Judd Gregg, the New Hampshire Republican who tried to excise the funds, called his amendment a no-brainer. He said it's common sense to get rid of tens of millions of dollars in spending.

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"These are self-congratulatory signs; they're political signs. They're so that lawmakers can pat themselves on the back," he said. "But these signs cost money. Actually, when you add them all up, they cost a lot of money."

Some localities have objected to the signs, arguing that they would rather spend the money on more projects. But Mr. Gregg said one community in New Hampshire was told no sign, no money for their original project.

"We do enough self-congratulating around here. They shouldn't make the taxpayers pay for it," he said.

Also Wednesday, senators voted against allowing states to determine their own transportation funding priorities, such as repairing deficient bridges. A day earlier, the Senate voted against an effort by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, to drop all of the pork-barrel earmark projects from the $67.7 billion transportation and housing spending bill and use the $1.7 billion slated for earmarks to modernize the nation's air traffic control system instead.

But many of the major fights are still happening on the stimulus bill, which passed Congress in February on near-party line votes.

Since then, Republicans have tried repeatedly to alter the stimulus bill, in ways both large and small.

Mr. Gregg acknowledged that this effort was as much a message as a cost-saving move. His amendment to the annual transportation spending bill would have banned putting up physical signs to tout stimulus transportation projects.

Five Democrats -- Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Charles E. Schumer of New York -- voted with all 40 Republicans to try to strip the money, but their support was not enough.

Mrs. Boxer called the effort "anti-jobs" and said the signs are an example of government transparency.

She also pointed to an episode earlier this decade when Republicans controlled the White House and Congress and sent out letters telling taxpayers that their tax cut checks were part of President Bush's 2003 tax cut package. She said that effort cost $33 million.

"Where was Sen. Gregg and his friends on the Republican side?" she said.

The stimulus bill included nearly $50 billion for the Transportation Department. So far, $28.3 billion has been obligated, but only $2.6 billion has been paid out for projects.

Mr. Gregg said the cost of signs ranges from $400 per sign in his state, New Hampshire, to $3,000 for signs in New Jersey.

Some localities have embraced the signs by touting their own messages. In Mississippi, for example, the name of Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, appears prominently on stimulus road project signs, along with the names of the state's transportation commissioners.

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