Every little bit helps

As Oregon's economy continues its downward slide, Gov. Ted Kulongoski has proposed a plan to employ 12,000 out-of-work Oregonians in temporary, entry-level jobs this summer. The Legislature should get behind this idea and give the governor the authority to implement it.

The state Employment Department reports 81,000 Oregonians are looking for entry-level work statewide, but fewer than 700 such jobs are currently available. Many of those 81,000 job-seekers are drawing unemployment compensation while they look for work.

Money to pay those hired for the temporary jobs would be redirected from the state Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, which holds $1.5 billion. There is enough money in reserve to cover the $90 million Kulongoski wants to use for the jobs program. The governor's office estimates unemployment insurance tax rates paid by employers will not have to increase this year or next as a result of the one-time expenditure.

The jobs would pay between $8.40 and $10 an hour. Many would involve manual labor for state agencies such as the Youth Conservation Corps, which can use several hundred more people to restore wetlands and build trails in parks, or the state Forestry and Agriculture departments, which need workers to improve watersheds and clear brush in fire-prone forests. Other jobs could include working for local food banks, which have seen demand for assistance soar as the economy soured.

All of this work would benefit local communities while providing income to unemployed Oregonians.

In the long run, the governor's proposal won't make much of a dent in the state unemployment rate. The jobs are expected to last for only four to six months.

But those who take the jobs will get a much-needed morale boost by working for a paycheck which, in many cases, will be larger than the average $250 weekly unemployment benefit. What's more, those hired will not have to draw unemployment for the duration of the job, giving them more weeks of eligibility next winter, when outdoor jobs are less plentiful.

Many of the jobs would be filled by young people who need summer work to help pay for college. Keeping more young Oregonians on the path to a degree will yield long-term benefits for the state's economy, as they go on to higher-paying jobs that generate more tax revenue for the state.

The usual yelps of protest were heard from the minority party in Salem. Senate GOP leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, told The Oregonian that the governor would be better advised to relax environmental regulations on business and push for more jobs in the forests. House Minority Leader Bruce Hanna, R-Roseburg, said the jobs plan "ignores the private sector."

It's worth noting that the governor's plan includes forest jobs, and it has the advantage of speed. The jobs exist now; the only thing missing is the money to hire people to do them.

It's hard to imagine that an industry battered by the collapse of housing construction would suddenly go on a hiring spree because some environmental restrictions were eased.

The state has the money to implement this program without tapping the general fund, the jobs exist and Oregonians need the work. Let's do it.

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