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See how Wisconsin is spending its share of federal stimulus funds

With the federal debt crisis grabbing headlines, you might think the stimulus is old news. Think again. In fact, Wisconsin still has another billion dollars in federal stimulus money to spend and we found some of those projects aren’t exactly stimulating much of anything.

While more than 220,000 Wisconsin workers struggle to find jobs, we’re spending stimulus money to study clouds in Antarctica, replace street lights that still work and purchase iPads for babysitters. Believe it or not, we’re spending millions on a video game for college professors in Madison!

When the federal stimulus is finally done raining money on Wisconsin, the Badger State will have piled up more than four billion dollars in economic aid.

Unemployed worker Shamia Vaughn says, “It has not helped me whatsoever.”

Vaughn is still looking for one of those jobs that money was supposed to create. “I could see if I was just stayin’ home in bed and not trying, but I’m tryin’.”

Vaughn was working fulll-time at Wells Fargo until the economy tanked in the fall of 2008 and the bank downsized her department. She’s been unemployed ever since. “There’s days I get desperate and apply to anything. Like, anybody call me back. I mean, it could be babysitting a frog, I don’t care. I just need a job.”

When President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a.k.a. Stimulus Plan, into law two years ago, he promised it would create more than 70,000 new jobs in Wisconsin alone.

It did create some jobs for construction workers and road builders. It saved teachers from impending layoffs and allowed local governments to retain police officers and firefighters.

Yet according to data we obtained from the White House’s own stimulus tracking website, the Stimulus Plan has employed fewer than 10,000 workers at any given time. Fewer than 5,000 workers in the first quarter of 2011.

In fact, some projects haven’t created any jobs at all. Director of Ozaukee County Transit Jason Wittek says, “Most of what we used in the funds would be the things we would’ve bought anyways.”

Wittek’s transit service used stimulus funds to buy nine new shared ride taxi’s, five minibuses and 22 mobile GPS systems. After spending nearly $600,000 dollars on all that stuff, Wittek says, “We did not create any direct jobs. All of ours were capital purchases.”

The City of Racine wanted to install new street lights, but Assistant Public Works Commissioner John Rooney decided they were too expensive. He says, “There really wasn’t a good cost benefit payback on that.”

That was true until the U.S. Department of Energy showered the city with nearly $800,000 in stimulus money. Suddenly Racine was replacing 1,500 old high pressure sodium lights with energy efficient LED lights, which are expected to save more than $40,000 a year in electric bills. They even hired an unemployed electrician to install them. “So somebody got a full-time job for a finite period of time,” says Rooney. He admits the $800,000 amounted to creating only one temporary job.

Nearly $200 million in stimulus money has been funneled into academic research projects at the University of Wisconsin. Like a $584,000 grant to analyze cloud formations in Antarctica, $900,000 to study woody vines in Panama, $1.3 million to research cosmic rays in outer space and $2 million to create a video game designed to teach UW faculty members about workforce diversity.

UW Physician Dr. Molly Carnes says, “If faculty hear that there’s some diversity exercise, they’re not going.”

Dr. Carnes says she’s working with video game developers at the Wisconsin Institute of Discovery in hopes of making diversity training more fun. “They really have a view of this potentially going viral!”

Dr. Carnes would not let us see the rough prototypes of the game, which are already being tested. She describes it as a role-playing game patterned in part after EA’s popular “Sims” video game series. It’s aimed at exposing what she called the hidden biases that prevent women from reaching leadership roles in science. Carnes says, “We want to change the culture…and in academic institutions, it is the faculty who are the purveyors of change.”

Shamia Vaughn is a big supporter of workplace diversity, but two million dollars on a video game? “The program was to create jobs. A video game is not creating a job!”

Actually Dr. Carney says it is. “We are employing now, full-time or part-time, nine people on this project.”

According to federal data, the $2 million project has created the equivalent of 3.74 full-time jobs. That’s more than a half million dollars per job!

Marquette Economics Professor Abdur Choudhury is a former Chief Economist for the United Nations in Europe. He says, “It did create some jobs, but then the question is could it have created more jobs if it was spent in a more efficient manner.”

Choudbury believes stimulus was a good idea that just failed to live up to expectations. “If you look at why the stimulus was enacted in the first place. The reason was to pay for various infrastructure projects, shovel ready projects.”

Instead of building up the nation’s infrastructure, much of the money was sprinkled around to projects that had little if any connection to job creation.

Like a $46,000 grant to the Ho Chunk nation to pay for babysitters during a two-day family wellness retreat last summer. When there was money left over after the retreat, the tribe came up with an addition project to completely spend the money. They bought iPads and laptops for everyone who helped take care of the children.

Choudbury says, “It does raise some questions in the minds of the public.”

Even projects that may one day be a huge economic boon for Wisconsin are doing little to help right away. Craig Rigby from Johnson Controls says, “We have been able to put a world class facility for the development and testing of battery technology.”

Johnson Controls recently unveiled a state of the art car battery research lab in Glendale. It’s part of a $300 million stimulus project that’s only created 135 jobs so far and more than half of those are in Michigan. Rigby says, “We see it progressing over time to be a much more important part of the vehicle market.”

Vaughn says, “I cry at night sometimes, because it’s ‘Am I gonna feed my children or buy them new shoes?’”

People like Vaughn can’t afford to wait. “I just trust God that maybe he can open a door for me, cause right now, it’s just very rough. Very rough.”

Before the stimulus, the unemployment rate in Wisconsin was 7.7% and today it’s 7.6%.

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