Making the Stimulus Czar Calls

One of the first things GOVERNING's editors taught me when I started here four years ago is that when reporting a story you have to think long and hard about where you call.
by | September 8, 2009

One of the first things GOVERNING's editors taught me when I started here four years ago is that when reporting a story you have to think long and hard about where you call. We have plenty of options: The United States has 50 state governments, 3,068 counties and 19,429 cities, towns, villages, etc.

If I'm writing about health care, or economic development or law enforcement, I could call almost any of those places and hear the government talk proudly of their novel accomplishments. But, there's a good chance that Sheboygan, Wisconsin's program is the same thing that Cheyenne, Wyoming was doing five years ago or that Portland, Maine is merely imitating Portland, Oregon.

The message from Governing's editors is that you don't call up any old government and breathlessly report that whatever it's doing is the next big thing. Rather, you dig until you find some place that is really doing something others aren't -- or doing something better than other places -- and then write about that.

So, I faced an atypical question when reporting a story for October about the economic stimulus: Where should I call when every state, on the surface, is doing the same thing?

My assignment was to figure out how the stimulus (and especially the state-administered portion of it) is working. Congress, of course, had fairly detailed instructions for states as to what they could do with the stimulus money. Some money was for Medicaid, some for education, some for infrastructure, some for unemployment benefits and on and on and on. My first impression was that no state would be doing anything different than any place else.

When I actually started to do research, though, I realized that my first impression wasn't entirely right. For example, the Associated Press had talked to several state stimulus czars, which was what I was about to do. The AP found that most were saying that the practical effect of the stimulus was more to plug holes in state budgets than to create anything new. Arkansas was different:

"We don't have a budget shortfall and 80 percent of the recovery money is going to construction," said Chris Masingill, who coordinates recovery efforts in Arkansas.

That struck me as ironic and interesting. The states with the least economic problems perhaps are doing the most with the stimulus? I called Arkansas and North Dakota (another economically resilient state) to hear from them. I also called Michigan to hear about the situation in a place with a deep recession.

From my research, I also found that most states were spending much of their infrastructure money on repaving. Paving projects allow for quick spending, but arguably aren't all that economically transformative. One state that seemed to be focusing on bigger projects was Florida -- that, anyway, was one of the state's responses when a congressman said Florida wasn't spending highway money quickly enough. I gave Florida a call.

Nonetheless, my overall impression still was that I had on my hands a different kind of Governing story. I was interested in the typical state experiences with the stimulus, as much as the atypical ones. Only by hearing from typical states would I be able to draw broad conclusions about what states were doing with the stimulus.

So, I sought impressions from a representative sample of states -- East and West, large and small, with Republican and Democratic governors. I also wanted to talk to some interesting people, if I could.

I called South Carolina and Minnesota because their Republican governors had been active stimulus opponents. I figured that if there was tension between the feds and states, I might hear about it from them.

I called New Mexico because the state had placed a former governor in charge of the stimulus. I thought he might have a good perspective.

I called Connecticut because, weeks after the start of the new fiscal year, lawmakers were still trying to write a state budget. I hoped state officials could tell me how the stimulus was affecting their budget situation.

I also called Colorado, though I can't quite remember why. (Maybe I wanted another Western state?) Regardless, I'm glad I did because something the Colorado stimulus czar told me ended up in the lead of my story -- as you'll see in the magazine next month.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer |