Las Vegas Sun

December 1, 2015

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Stimulus project decisions: Who makes the call?

Agency chief making list; Legislature wants a say

Before Nevada can spend its share of the federal stimulus money earmarked for transportation, state leaders must figure out who gets to pick the projects.

On one side is the Legislature, whose members believe they have the authority to decide what projects get funded from the $201 million allocated to Nevada.

On the other is the Nevada Transportation Department and Gov. Jim Gibbons’ administration, which say the department’s director will choose from a list of approved projects.

“We are developing a list of projects,” said Susan Martinovich, director of the Transportation Department. “Right now, at this point, it’s part of our normal process” of spending federal transportation dollars.

The list will be ready in about two weeks, she said.

The projects will mostly involve repaving existing routes, Martinovich said. Although there is a long list of “shovel-ready” plans for new or expanded roadways, many would be too expensive to be funded by the stimulus.

“It’s a nice amount of money, but not enough to complete a major new project,” Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada spokeswoman Tracy Bower said of the stimulus. “It could be enough to do a single road project.”

Trying to prevent a battle between the branches of government over control of the money, Martinovich said she plans to work with the heads of the Assembly and Senate transportation committees, Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, and Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas.

But legislative leaders are clearly looking for more control.

Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley and Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, both Las Vegas Democrats, said they want to make sure the Legislature has oversight to keep the process transparent and accountable. Buckley also wants to make sure job creation remains the focus of the spending.

“We will oversee how the money will be best spent,” Horsford said.

Their legal counsel agrees that lawmakers should have that role. Brenda Erdoes, the Legislative Counsel Bureau’s legal counsel, said the state constitution includes a process for the Legislature to spend gifts and grants. (She said she is still studying the issue and the stimulus’s language.)

The stimulus requires that some of the money be allocated to Clark and Washoe counties for highway projects and some to areas with fewer than 5,000 residents. After that, the state will have about $140 million left to spend, Martinovich said.

Clark County would get the largest share but, Martinovich said, “we want to make sure there are projects in all parts of our state.”

Southern Nevada transportation and public works officials have $1 billion in projects that could be ready within 120 days and could be considered when the money is allocated, Bower said.

Though lawmakers didn’t voice the concern Wednesday, critics have argued that Southern Nevada often gets shortchanged by the Transportation Department to the benefit of Northern and rural Nevada.

Buckley said legislators will hold hearings to keep the process transparent.

“We want to make sure we’re getting people back to work as soon as possible,” she said. “There may be no disagreement between the governor’s office and legislators on what projects to pick. Maybe the hearings lead to universal support.”

Sun reporter Brian Eckhouse contributed to this story.

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