Debicella blasts stimulus bill, but touted grants to his towns

WASHINGTON–In his congressional campaign, Republican Dan Debicella has blasted the 2009 federal stimulus package, saying the $787 billion measure is the ultimate example of out-of-control spending and should be repealed.

“The pork-barrel stimulus bill has done next to nothing to create jobs in Connecticut,” Debicella declares on his campaign website. A state senator from Shelton, Debicella is now in a tight race against Democratic Rep. Jim Himes for Connecticut’s 4th congressional district.

But when the “pork” was flowing into his district, Debicella’s take wasn’t always so harsh. In about a half-dozen news releases last year, Debicella cheered the infusion of federal dollars into Shelton and Stratford, saying the money could reduce traffic congestion, improve safety, and even boost the economy.

“Stimulus Funds To Benefit Franklin Elementary School in Stratford,” the headline on one Debicella press release announced last summer. The release touted a $3,459 grant to the elementary school for new lunchroom equipment.

“This program has allowed Franklin Elementary and other schools across Connecticut to purchase needed equipment for their cafeterias without imposing tax increases on local property owners,” Debicella is quoted as saying in the statement.

In several of the press releases, Debicella does temper the announcement of federal funds with a note of skepticism about the stimulus law, called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

“Like many Americans, I have mixed feelings about the stimulus package,” he wrote in a May 2009 news release listing 16 grants that Shelton and Stratford received through the law. Among the funding he highlighted: $909,000 for Long Beach West cleanup, $2 million for Barnum Avenue streetscape improvements, and $375,000 for upgrades to train stations in Stratford and Shelton.

“Obviously I am glad to receive funding for projects in our community, which will hopefully create jobs and improve the economy,” he wrote. “However, I am worried about the massive size of stimulus (almost $800 billion dollars-more than $2,500 for every person in the United States), and the fact that we will be paying for today’s expenses for the next twenty years.”

Debicella said his position is the same now as it was then: the stimulus law was ill-conceived and ineffective. But it’s his job as a state legislator to make sure that, as long as the federal money was flowing, his constituents were able to benefit.

Debicella said if he could, he would return all the money his district has gotten in exchange for enactment of his proposal to cut payroll taxes in half for one year.

“I would trade every single dollar in exchange for the payroll tax cut,” he said. “It is a much, much better way to stimulate the economy than all the stimulus projects that have come out.”

And he remains unapologetic about the press releases. “Of course when my community’s gotten stimulus funds, I announce them,” he said. “But if you ask me, would I give them all back if we could implement my plan to cut payroll taxes in half? Absolutely I would.”

Himes said Debicella has been “dishonest and hypocritical about the stimulus from start to finish,” Himes said.  “The only people who are saying the Recovery Act didn’t do anything are Republican candidates for office,” said Himes, pointing to assessments from Moody’s Analytics and the Federal Reserve that conclude the Recovery Act helped boost the economy.

Debicella is hardly the only Republican who touted federal stimulus grants for his district, while also blasting the bill. A recent report by the Center for Public Integrity found that many members of Congress-Republicans and conservative Democrats-who voted against the ARRA subsequently lobbied federal agencies to channel money to stimulus projects in their home-states.

Although some economists say the Recovery Act helped stave off a depression, it act has become politically toxic, in part because of growing public concern over the federal deficit.

Himes acknowledges it’s not the most popular topic these days. He said a recent poll conducted by his campaign found that one-third of his constituents say it helped, one-third say it hurt, and another one-third weren’t sure.

So far, the ARRA has pumped about $3 billion into Connecticut, with the money going to schools, transit projects, public housing improvements and myriad other state priorities. Another $1.4 billion has been committed to the state but not yet spent.

The White House estimates the stimulus saved or created about 38,000 jobs in the state-a figure Debicella and other critics question. “What has Fairfield County received for this massive new debt? ” Debicella asks on his website. “Some paving jobs on the Merritt Parkway for two months.”

That’s an apparent reference to a $70.8 million resurfacing and bridge improvement project to the Merritt Parkway in Fairfield and Trumbull, which Himes said created at least 100 jobs in the 4th District.

In his May 2009 release, Debicella said “families will also benefit from several regional transportation grants from the federal stimulus bill,” listing the Merritt Parkway project as one example.