Tom Evslin starts work at 4 a.m., but he isn’t a garbage man, a baker or a day trader. As Vermont’s “Chief Recovery Officer,” Evslin directs the allocation of money received through February’s $789 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — aka the federal “stimulus package.”
Evslin was appointed in March by Gov. James Douglas to run the state’s brand-new Office of Economic Stimulus and Recovery. Now the former Agency of Transportation secretary and his half-dozen staffers are figuring out how to allocate the $720 million in stimulus funds that Vermont will receive over the next two years. They’re also helping individuals, organizations, businesses, towns and state agencies apply for competitive grants worth up to $400 million.
Sifting through stimulus paperwork can be tricky. Evslin says the slow pace of federal bureaucracy forces him to be flexible. For example, while he initially divided stimulus information on the ESR website into six categories — broadband, business taxes, energy, individual taxes, public safety and transportation — he added four more — education, green initiatives, job training and small business — as new federal information was released.
Fortunately, Evslin has plenty of experience building web-savvy administrative juggernauts. The Stowe resident has founded high-tech companies with his wife, Mary, and held influential posts at Microsoft and AT&T. When he isn’t attending stimulus meetings, giving interviews or lobbying the legislature, Evslin blogs at the ESR site and at his personal website, tomevslin.com. The latter is occasionally irreverent — “My new gig” is how he titled the announcement of his CRO job; in another post, he makes an economic case for legalizing drugs. The 65-year-old grandfather “Twitters” now, too.
Evslin says he plans to administer stimulus funds until December and donate his minimum-wage salary to the state. If he weren’t spearheading a huge project, he adds, he would blog about unrelated topics and write a follow-up to his 2006 novel, hackoff.com: an historic murder mystery set in the Internet bubble and rubble. These days, however, Evslin has enough trouble getting back to Stowe by 7 p.m. “We’re trying to do a lot of big things in a very short amount of time,” he explains. “That takes exuberance, energy and belief.”
On a recent Friday afternoon in Montpelier, Evslin found a moment to chat with a reporter about his new job.
SEVEN DAYS: When people ask you whether the stimulus bill is a good idea, you say, “We’ll see.” Why?
TOM EVSLIN: Some people have said about the stimulus bill — with some justification — that we have a problem that was caused by misuse of debt, and that we’re trying to cure it by issuing more debt. Now, it’s not that Vermont itself is going to have to pay the stimulus money back, but taxpayers who live in Vermont will pay it back, either in taxes or inflation in years to come.
It’s a little bit like a home equity loan ... If you take out a home-equity loan and use it to improve your house and make it worth more, that’s a good use of debt. So it’s up to us to make a good use of this debt. If we misuse it — and that will be very easy to do — then at the end of two years we’ll have more debt and have accomplished nothing, and therefore have a very hard time paying it back. If we use it well, hopefully we’ll have taken Vermont to a place that’s even better than where we were before the recession began.
SD: What’s your role as the state’s Chief Recovery Officer?
TE: I have some roles that are purely administrative. There are vast reporting requirements with this money — we’ve got to make sure we do that right. It’s necessary to make sure that people have information about the act, so our website is an important way of communicating. People want to know, “How does this affect me?” We have to be able to answer that question...
But to me the most interesting part of the job is helping to figure out the priorities for how we spend all this money. There’s $720 million, roughly, that we know is coming into the state, not counting the tax cuts to individual Vermonters. They’ll decide how to spend those. There’s another $200 to $400 million that we might or might not get, depending on what a good job we do applying, and what the rules are to apply for competitive grants. I think it’s important not only to get the most money we can get, but to spend that money in ways that bring us to the place we need to be.
There are about 300 programs [in the stimulus package], so we don’t have discretion in all of them. But where we do have discretion, [we’ve decided to] concentrate on a few priorities. And by concentrating on those few priorities, which are actually interrelated, we believe that we can build the kind of Vermont economy and environment that we want to have two or three years from now, when the stimulus money’s all been spent.
SD: To what extent do you, as opposed to Gov. Douglas, have discretion over how stimulus money is spent?
TE: I’m not a “czar”! [Laughs.] There’s almost no case where I have discretion except what to urge and what to emphasize. I work for the governor, so I certainly have an influence over administration policy. But there’s no area where I can just set it unilaterally.
Moreover, when we spend money in Vermont, in almost all cases the Vermont constitution requires that that money be appropriated by the legislature, whether the money came from Washington or it came from the Vermont taxpayers. Right now, for example, the [Douglas] administration and the legislature have very different ideas on how to spend the $17.1 million of so-called State Fiscal Stabilization Funds ... In the end, there’ll be a budget bill, and whatever the budget bill says is how Vermont’s going to spend the money.
So I can help shape the policy. I can certainly help lobby with the legislature, negotiate with the legislature, develop public support for what we’re going to do. But I can’t sit in this office and say, “That’s how that $17.1 million dollars is going to be spent.”
SD: Municipalities are pitching “shovel-ready” projects. How do you decide which ones to support?
TS: Part of it is simply what’s eligible. So, we can’t take the money that’s supposed to go to the schools, for example, and give it to towns to repair town garages. We just don’t have that flexibility.
There’s money that’s targeted for energy efficiency that we’re targeting as much as we can to towns, but we’re going to say it has to be used for projects that have returns on investments as energy-efficiency projects. Stowe would love to get funding for a hockey rink, but that isn’t going to happen out of this bill, because there isn’t any pot of money for that kind of project.
There’s some money that flows through the towns as community block grants. [Towns] can use those as they choose. There are prohibitions in the act against funding zoos, swimming pools and anything like it. We just got a letter from [the Obama administration] saying ... “We’re about to give you more regulations.” They’re liable to decide that hockey rinks are frozen swimming pools!
SD: There’s competition within the state for stimulus money. At the same time, when you went to Washington, D.C., last month, Vice President Joe Biden asked you and other stimulus administrators to make your process “transparent.” It seems like being transparent could create tension.
TE: It [does]. For example, when we got proposals from the various telecom providers, they were telling us their business secrets that they don’t necessarily want made public, but this was information we had to have in order to coordinate [grants]...
Our blogging about the process is part of informing people. I “Twittered” when I was at the meeting — not that I think everybody has to know minute by minute what’s going on at the meeting, but [the Obama administration] mentioned transparency so many times that it didn’t seem like a bad thing to do. And sometimes first impressions are more revealing.
So, we’ll use both informal and very formal ways of being transparent. When the guidelines finally arrive from the federal government, I’m sure they’ll be very explicit. But we’re working to be transparent in spirit as well. Another example: The legislature and the governor have competing proposals for using this $17.1 million dollars. We’re posting both on our website. We don’t have to do that, but I think ... people should get a chance to look at both of them. The website is being editorially neutral — it’s not administration PR, it’s a description of an ongoing process.
SD: Looking back on the stimulus package, how will we measure success?
TE: The money’s going to come in over two years and be spent over three. When we look back, we should say, “Did we build a Vermont that’s substantially better — economically, environmentally — as a place to live than the Vermont that we had going into the recession?”
...We could use money to have some people dig holes, like [economic theorist John Maynard] Keynes said, and have some other people fill them in. Then at the end we have some disturbed ground and some debt. If we do that, we’ll have failed. But if we have a stronger Vermont in a number of areas, and it’s a better place to live, then we’ll have done our job.