Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Stimulus? What Stimulus? ARRA? Arrgh!

The Buck Stops Here
Young Rocky Mountain Sheep entering MT Highway 200
Taken (through windshield) June 13, 2009
Near Bonner, Montana

NOTE PLEASE: Clicking on any photograph will open a full-screen version of that photo in a separate window. All links also open in a separate window.
I am changing my name to Chrysler
I am headed for that great receiving line
So when they hand a million grand out
I'll be standing with my hand out
Yes sir, I'll get mine

--Tom Paxton
Hear Arlo Guthrie sing this wonderful Paxton song on Youtube.

Should you find yourself wide awake at 3:00 a.m., and as it turns out, your significant other is also wide awake.... And should said s.o. turn to you and ask, "Do you want to go to Great Falls in the morning?" My advice is simple, go back to bed, turn off the lights, pull the covers up over your head, and at least pretend to go back to sleep. Do not, under any circumstances say, "Sure, dear. Why not."

As it turns out, Montana's junior senator, Jon Tester, was holding a "workshop" on how Montana Small Businesses could access some of the stimulus money available through ARRA (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009). Now mind you, we don't have a small business. Oh sure, Kevin has lots of flyers, tear off sheets, and business cards for KerrComm, but I haven't ever seen him do anything with it. KerrComm, or Kerr Communications, is the telephone company that Kevin set up. I guess we could pretend that we might be able to get stimulus money to help set up phone systems. In any event, it would be a chance to get out of town, get some more photos, and maybe learn a bit more about what is really going on in this time of uncertainty. Well, it seemed like a reasonable idea at 3:00 a.m.

I tried, I really tried to get some sleep before we left, but it just didn't happen. It's a three hour drive (under good conditions) from Missoula to Great Falls, and the "workshop" was supposed to begin at 10 a.m. We had no idea when it would end. This meant we would have to be on the road no later than 7. Before then I'd have to make my morning café-au-lait, fix breakfast, shower, shave and all that jazz, shoot the dog (remember Rocky has to have his insulin injections twice a day), and probably fill up the gas tank and wash the car. No wonder I couldn't get back to sleep.

OK, I got up, showered, made my coffee, dressed, and took the Saab for a drink and a shower. Kevin stayed home to shoot Rocky and get his act together. We were on the road by a little after 6 a.m.

We made it 10 miles or so when we came to a screeching halt near a sign warning of road construction and a small herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis canadensis) taking advantage of the stalled traffic.

Once past the sheep, we stopped again, this time for a road construction red light. We had to wait for the pilot car, and it seemed to take forever. Kevin pointed out that had I not stopped for the sheep, we would not have been first in line now, but rather would have been able to follow the last group through.

Eventually, the pilot car showed up and we followed her for the next ten miles. I was getting concerned as we didn't have a lot of leeway in our transit time, but sometimes you just have to go with the flow. A little ways past Johnsrud Park, the construction zone ended and we were able to get back up to speed--whereupon we noticed that one tire was badly out of balance, or the car was out of alignment, or something. Only when we got the car up above 75 mph (the speed limit on rural Montana roads is 70 mph) were we able to sail somewhat smoothly.

Once over Rogers Pass, we took the cutoff to Wolf Creek and I-15. Neither of us are sure if this saved us any miles or even time, but it was a beautiful drive through the Rocky Mountain Front. Once on I-15, we sped on into Great Falls and arrived at the Civic Center with about ten minutes to spare.

Trent Frazier of Customs and Border Protection, an Aide, and Senator Jon Tester
Taken 6/13/09
Great Falls, Montana

The "workshop" turned out to be a chance for various government officials to tell us just why Montana businesses weren't going to benefit from the stimulus package. Oh that's not what they said, but it was certainly what they implied. Senator Tester had brought representatives from Customs and Border Protection, the GSA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Air Force, and the US Forest Service. All of these representatives came with their own aides, and it was amazing that there was any room left for an audience. In fact, the room quickly filled with people standing around the edges and in the doorway. More chairs were brought in, and still people were standing. Montana business folk were looking for a way to survive in these hard economic times.

Over the next two hours we learned that there are seven major projects planned for Montana through ARRA. Five of those involve building or rebuilding border crossing stations, known as Land-based Ports of Entry (LPOE). Two of those are located in the northeastern corner of the state, and the state representative and senator for that district were present.

Long story short, what we learned was that due to the rapid turn around required by the legislation, most of the projects were awarded to out-of-state contractors with whom the various agencies already have relationships. These contractors are supposed to make sure that local subcontractors have a chance to work on the projects. I didn't hear if there is any way to ensure that local businesses actually do get to assist. The questions from the floor were pointed, and usually tended to be more comments in the form of "we have tried to meet your requirements but the paperwork is too time consuming and as a small business we don't have the money or personnel to spend on filling out your forms." One contractor noted that while they had the expertise, the equipment, and the ability to get the job done, the federal government was requiring at least one year of business in Utah. This was for a Montana based job. It makes you wonder.

There were breakout sessions scheduled for the afternoon, where contractors and other business folk could meet directly with the various agency representatives. I chose to wander outside the Civic Center and catch the closing minutes of the Farmers' Market.

Civic Iris
Taken outside the Great Falls (Montana) Civic Center

When Kevin joined me, we walked around the various booths as the vendors were closing up shop. I stopped to get some floral photos before we headed off to find a few geocaches. I'm still introducing Kevin to the joys and frustrations of geocaching, and had printed up four sets of clue sheets for Great Falls. There are 754 caches hidden within a 100 mile radius of Great Falls, but I knew we wouldn't have the time for even a fraction of that number. Four seemed like a good start. As it turned out we found three of the four. We spent quite a bit of time looking for the fourth, unsucessfully, and I really hated to give up. Prior to our attempt, 120 people have found the cache and only one has not. Now we can make it two. Personally, I think the cache has been moved or stolen.

On the way home, Kevin stuck to the Interstate. I-15 to Helena, US 12 to Garrison Junction, and I-90 on to Missoula. I believe that I-15 between Helena and Great Falls is one of the most beautiful drives in the state. There is a scenic viewpoint about half way, with a great view of the Missouri River and a sign naming this stretch as the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Memorial Highway. Since I work for the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center, stopping at the viewpoint seemed appropriate.

The Missouri River as seen from I-15
Taken at the Scenic Viewpoint near Wolf Creek, Montana

After a brief stop in Helena to quench our thirst, we headed west on US 12 over McDonald Pass, catching I-90 at Garrison Junction. The skies were becoming increasingly black, and it was not hard to believe that thunderstorms were imminent. We did manage to make it home with only a few raindrops falling on our heads--or on the top of the convertible, but I was able to get some shots of dramatic cloud formations over the hills fronting the highway.

From a photographic standpoint, the trip was a success. It was also a good lesson in how our government works--or doesn't as the case may be. Still and all, I should have answered Kevin's 3 a.m. question by shutting my mouth and going back to bed.

The Angry Big Sky
Storm Clouds over Granite County
Taken near Drummond, Montana

1 comment:

TheHappyMan said...

I hear you. "What stimulus?" One longtime DC guy I met last June 2008 had told me that no matter who the President is...after his first 100 days in office it's 'all the same ole/same ole'. I'm still hoping the stimulus is a gradual process and we'll suddenly FEEL something major. Today, in SOHO, NYC there were so many people out (compared to the last few days). It's like the bell rang and people decided to go out and spend. Hmmm...time will tell. GREAT blog!