Uncle Sam spends far less in valley than U.S. average

The federal government spends far less per person in the Northern San Joaquin Valley than it does elsewhere in the country.

The valley's share of the taxpayer pie is only about 58 percent of the national average, a new report reveals.

What federal funds pay for in Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties also differs dramatically from what's typical elsewhere in the country.

Few federal dollars are used to employ people, buy products or build things in the valley.

Instead, the vast majority of funds are funneled to the valley's elderly and poor people to pay for retirement, medical care, disabilities, food stamps, housing, general assistance and the like.

The U.S. Census Bureau this week released a detailed accounting of how and where federal tax dollars were spent, called the Consolidated Federal Funds Report for 2005.

Washington disbursed nearly $2.3 trillion that year across the country. It spent an average $7,706 per person. But per capita spending was $4,446 in Stanislaus, $4,644 in San Joaquin and $4,416 in Merced.

Compare that with what was spent in Washington's so-called "inside the Beltway" region: Virginia got $12,572 and Maryland got $11,936 per capita.

Nationwide, about 16 percent of federal funds were spent on procurement. But very little of that cash went to buy things in the valley. Only 4 percent of the federal money spent in Stanislaus went toward procurement contracts.

Just over 10 percent of federal spending went toward salaries and wages nationwide, but relatively few of those jobs were in the valley. Less than 4 percent of federal spending in Stanislaus was for jobs, and the overwhelming majority of them were for the postal service.

Social Security benefits, by contrast, represented a disproportionately large chunk of federal spending in the valley.

Nationwide, less than 23 percent of federal spending was for Social Security retirement, disability and survivors in- surance. In Stanislaus, however, those benefits accounted for nearly 33 percent of all federal money disbursed.

Medicare's chunk bigger than average

Medicare funding also consumed a bigger-than-average chunk of what was spent in the valley. Nationwide, less than 15 percent of federal dollars went toward Medicare hospital and supplementary medical insurance. But such funds ac- counted for more than 21 percent of what was spent in Stanislaus.

The federal government spent tax dollars in about 1,325 programs in 2005. But about 90 percent of those programs didn't spend even $1 in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

Only 127 federal programs, for instance, spent any money in Stanislaus.

The Census Bureau posts the Consolidated Federal Funds Report on its Web site every year, and the 2004 spending statistics showed similarly meager spending the valley.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, said the federal spending numbers illustrate a problem local lawmakers have long complained about.

"We've been screaming about it," Cardoza said, noting he raised the latest spending report in a recent California congressional delegation meeting.

Cardoza said area representatives have been hindered by the congressional failure to pass standard appropriations bills in the past several years. Without appropriations bills, it's much harder to target funds to local projects. Congressional Democrats, with varying success, have also sought to restrict the number of so-called earmarked spending items.

"Nothing has changed for the past three years, because we haven't gotten another bite at the apple," Cardoza said.

Cardoza said some improvements might come in a new farm bill, for which the House is offering a record $1.7 billion in specialty crop spending. He cited, as well, a united valley effort to support interstate status for Highway 99, and he predicted that additional science funding will flow to the area once the University of California at Merced is at full speed.

The University of California makes it hard to obtain targeted funds, Cardoza added, because of a policy that seeks strictly merit-based research dollars. It's not a policy everyone agrees with.

"I think we're getting our needs met," Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, said Wednesday.

Radanovich said he isn't concerned by the seemingly low federal investment. The dollar figures, he maintained, "can be influenced by a lot of things" that are beyond congressional intervention.

"I don't think a good measure of a member of Congress is how much pork you can bring home," Radanovich said.

Some valley leaders, however, think federal dollars should be more equitably distributed across the nation.

"We would like to get our fair share of procurement contracts," said Bill Bassitt, who heads the Stanislaus Economic Development & Workforce Alliance. "Why aren't they buying our food products or manufacturing products or our services?"

Jobs create jobs, alliance head notes

While getting funds for Social Security and social welfare programs is important, Bassitt said, Stanislaus County would benefit even more if additional federal jobs were transferred to the region.

"Jobs need to be spread around the valley, not concentrated in certain locations," he said. "Jobs create jobs. There's a multiplier effect that's created when someone with a government job earns enough to have discretionary funds to spend on things besides essentials. That discretionary income can be used to broaden the economy in a community."

Were more federal funds to be channeled into valley jobs and procurement contracts, Bassitt said, Stanislaus' economy would benefit far more than it does from current allocations.

Congressmen have cited previous studies of federal spending in hopes of spurring more investment.

In February 2005, the Congressional Research Service issued its valley assessment prepared at the joint re- quest of valley lawmakers.

The earlier study found that the San Joaquin Valley received an average of $4,645 per person from the federal government in fiscal year 2003, compared with the California average of $6,192 per person. The lawmakers who asked for the report vowed to use it as a tool.

"This study gives us the information we need to make the best case," Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said at the time.

The lawmakers asked congressional researchers to compare the San Joaquin Valley with the notoriously blighted Appalachian region. Analysts found that Appalachia was, in fact, drawing more federal dollars.

Recurring political obstacles have frustrated even modest efforts to boost local federal spending.

In 2001, for instance, Radanovich introduced a bill to study designating Highway 49 as the "Golden Chain Highway National Heritage Corridor." The designation would have made the mountain region between Mariposa and Plumas counties similar to two dozen existing national heritage corridors nationwide.

Philosophical objections from Rep. John Doolittle, R-Rocklin, and other conservatives skeptical about an expanding federal government forced Radanovich to scale back the idea. It has long since died on the vine.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or 578-2196.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0006.