Go get that pork

Christmas is over but state and local public agencies across Nevada are still making their lists and checking them twice.

These lists prioritize the public works projects for which they hope to receive funding under President-elect Barack Obama's planned $800 billion economic stimulus package. The projects range from highway construction to renewable energy plants.

Now, some might not approve of this feeding frenzy, labeling it a grab for pork. But you won't find me among the critics.

On the contrary, if the federal government is going to allocate $800 billion for public works, Nevada should get as big a piece of the pie as it can. We not only need it, we deserve it.

We need it because Nevada has been hit hard by the economic crisis. First, our real estate bubble burst. Nevada leads the country in home foreclosures. New-home construction has dwindled to a trickle, while existing homes are worth half what they were two years ago. Some homeowners are walking away from their properties, while others are upside-down.

After the real estate nosedive, Nevada's tourism industry started feeling the effects. Visitor numbers have dropped, gambling and retail spending have followed suit, and hotel suites can be rented at bargain rates. The casino companies are responding with big layoffs and canceled projects.

Naturally, with Nevada's economy in freefall, the state budget is out of whack. Lawmakers are slashing spending and searching frantically for new funding sources. The 2009 legislative session, starting in February, promises to be one of the most crucial and contentious in state history as lawmakers scramble to fix a $2 billion imbalance.

So, Nevada needs help.

Nevada also deserves a federal boost because we haven't been getting our fair share for years. Year after year, studies show that Nevada gives a lot more to federal coffers in taxes and fees than it gets back. We've been getting shortchanged and it's time for that to end.

Nevada should be in prime position to benefit from the stimulus plan. Democrat Harry Reid is the Senate's majority leader, while John Ensign is the No. 4-ranking Republican in the upper chamber. By all rights, if Reid and Ensign work together, Nevada should be swimming in stimulus projects.

It's happened before. "We have a tradition in Nevada of powerful senators bringing home pork," says Michael Green, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada.

Key Pittman, Pat McCarran, Alan Bible and Howard Cannon all secured major federal dollars for Nevada in the form of dams, military bases, atomic testing facilities, airports, highways and municipal improvements. In fact, Nevada was No. 1 per capita among the states in New Deal expenditures, thanks largely to the efforts of Pittman and McCarran.

"Federal spending, and lots of it, triggered the rise of modern Las Vegas," writes Eugene Moehring, a UNLV history professor, in "Resort City in the Sunbelt: Las Vegas, 1930-2000."

As Obama looks for projects to jump-start the economy, Nevada should not set its expectations too low. Let's think big.

For example, U.S. Highway 95 linking Northern and Southern Nevada should be four lanes all the way. Considering the amount and importance of the traffic on the road, it's absurd for motorists to be forced to slog behind some slow-motion RV for miles because it's not safe to pass. Improving this highway would generate jobs, enhance a vital commercial transportation artery and help revitalize economically stagnant communities.

Along the same lines, stimulus funds should be persued to improve telecommunications networks across the Silver State. Wide swaths of rural Nevada still do not have cellular reception or good Internet access, which hampers the competitiveness of those communities to attract industry, workers and visitors.

Finishing the Las Vegas Beltway is another priority item. The Regional Transportation Commission has already identified an $82 million beltway expansion project in the northern valley for stimulus funding. But let's not be timid. Why not seek funding to get the whole thing finished once and for all?

These and other projects have the potential to elevate Nevada to new levels of economic opportunity. The question is, will Reid and Ensign go for the gold as their predecessors did so effectively?

We're not talking about any "Bridge to Nowhere" here. Some pork is bad but most is not. In fact, most federal public works projects are very beneficial to the people and economies where they are built. Obama's plan includes safeguards to make sure pet projects don't make the cut.

"In Nevada history classes, I always tell students that they need to learn Green's Law," says Green. "Green's Law states, 'Americans oppose federal spending in 49 states, just not the one they're in.' "

Nevada needs and deserves its fair share of the planned stimulus package. It has sent Reid and Ensign, as well as Reps. Shelley Berkley, Dean Heller and Dina Titus, to Washington to secure its fair share. Reid and Ensign, in particular, are in a position to get it. So go get it.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is publisher of Las Vegas CityLife, owned by the same company as the Review-Journal. His column appears Friday.