State legislators look to Obama for funds

SALEM — State policy makers are keeping their eyes pointed toward Washington, hoping the administration of President Barack Obama and Congress can swiftly provide aid for the state's slumping economy.

Obama says his top priority now that he's sitting behind the desk at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will be the passage of what could turn out to be a $1 trillion stimulus package. Between $400 million and $1 billion of the stimulus package that is expected to pass through Congress next month is earmarked for transportation projects and infrastructure improvements in Oregon.

A second federal stimulus package in the works would provide money to help sustain government programs — such as food stamps and the Oregon Health Plan — that are being swamped with more requests than they can accommodate as layoffs continue, businesses are shuttered and families lose their homes.

Yet another stimulus, a state project, would provide $120 million to improve government buildings around the state.

The most crucial of the stimulus projects, according to an e-mail sent by Gov. Ted Kulongoski's office, is the federal works project, which would allocate money to Oregon schools that could keep the state's education system afloat through the remainder of the school year.

Schools around the state are faced with the possibility of layoffs or reducing programs and school days.

"The bill moving in the House of Representatives would help Oregon in several ways from human services to education, economic development and public works projects," said Rem Nivens, a spokesman for Kulongoski. "Oregon stands ready to put those dollars to use."

As the bill is written, Nivens said, Oregon would not receive money for education until next year.

"The state needs those dollars for this school year," Nivens said. "The governor has alerted members of the Oregon delegation about the timing issue, and his staff in D.C. has been working to emphasize the critical nature of making some of the education dollars available by June 30."

While education tops the governor's priority list, other members of the Southern Oregon delegation are concerned about the sluggish economy.

Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, said in a phone interview that stimulus funds would be used to put local contractors to work fixing the aged and leaky roofs at Southern Oregon University and other state buildings.

"These are all issues that we know are there," Bates said. "This is a perfect time to rebuild our infrastructure so when we come out of this recession we'll be ready to get America up and running."

Bates said the state needs help sustaining its human services, but is unsure what kind of help or how much of an impact federal aid might provide. Oregon could receive as little as $400 million or as much as $800 million over about two years, he said.

"The problem for us is when state government demands go up, that's when they come for state help," Bates said. "Our revenues for the state go the opposite direction; they go down. Four-hundred million (dollars) doesn't do it for us or any other state."

Support for federal stimulus to fund infrastructure improvements reaches across the aisle.

"The Oregon Department of Transportation has a list of projects that could be implemented immediately," said Rep. George Gilman, R-Medford, the vice chair of the House Transportation Committee. "The creation of jobs is the main reason for the stimulus package — we don't want to wait a year or two to get the project on the ground."

Gilman added that federal stimulus could help expedite a move to alternative energy sources.

Others, however, are skeptical a stimulus package is the answer to providing lasting relief.

Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, said borrowing money is not the answer to setting the economy on a sustainable new course.

"The stimulus program will be fun to spend on various projects but when that money is gone we will find ourselves in the same position, except we'll be in much greater debt," Richardson said.

In short-term recessions, Richardson said, injecting money into the economy would be a viable method for kick-starting the economy. National economics experts say it could take up to two years for the economy to start to improve.

"Through credit, we have tried to resolve a problem that has credit at its base," Richardson said. "This plan of paying to keep business afloat is government intervention at its worst." He said a better approach would be to give the market time to adjust.

"Businesses that have flawed leadership and flawed business plans go out of business and new businesses replace them," Richardson said.

The governor's office and other local legislators aren't focused on what built the stormy economic conditions, but on finding a way to ride out the stormy days.

"These engineering and construction jobs will help the state chip away at the backlog of the deferred maintenance projects at our schools and will improve our transportation system," Nivens said. "These are long-term investments that will pay dividends for many years to come."

Bob Albrecht is a freelance writer living in Eugene.

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