Promised job numbers don't always pan outby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
Supporters of the federal economic stimulus plan say it will prime the pump of job creation. Supporters say it will save or create thousands of jobs in Minnesota alone. But if the past is a model there's no guarantee that the bill will deliver the promised jobs.
St. Paul, Minn. — On the day after the U.S. House passed its version of the federal stimulus bill, Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., was at the state Capitol touting its promise.
At a press briefing and committee hearing, Oberstar repeatedly said the transportation portion of the stimulus package will produce as many at 12,000 construction jobs in Minnesota and many more across the country.
"When we put a million construction workers on the job by June, they'll be off of the unemployment rolls," he said. "We won't be paying them any longer for not working. We'll be paying them to work."
If you feel like you've heard promises like that before, you have.
"This bill is going to put people back to work. We've estimated that 33,000 Minnesotans will be put back to work in the very first year," that's what Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing said a year ago.
Murphy made the statement when he introduced a transportation funding bill that became law despite Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto. It included a gas tax and sales tax increase.
"These are high-paying, quality jobs," he said. "Let's kick off the economy and do it with a good transportation bill."
Job creation was only one selling point for the transportation bill. Supporters also argued that the bill, which raised gas and sales taxes, would provide much needed money to a cash starved system.
But DFLers did push the job message on several fronts last year. They promised thousands of new construction jobs if the transportation and bonding bills became law.
The bills did pass, but now, Murphy says the promise of 33,000 jobs in the transportation bill was too high.
"We're right around half of that, and the reason why is that there was such a drop-off in fuel consumption that it negated the increase of the gas tax," he said. "So we didn't perform in a jobs sense."
It's hard to determine whether Murphy's estimates, which he said he gathered from industry leaders, are true. The Minnesota Department of Transportation said it doesn't track the number of people who work on individual projects.
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development monitors broad construction employment trends but doesn't track work created by specific legisation. DEED shows an increase of about 2,000 jobs in one construction sector - heavy and civil engineering from 2007 until 2008. Every other construction sector lost jobs during that period.
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said more jobs might have been lost if lawmakers didn't pass the transportation bill.
"The projection without the passage of the bill were major major layoffs from our road builders in the state," she said. "Less of that happened, but it's still clear that there were other factors going on here."
For example, Kelliher said, the poor economy prompted people to drive less. That meant fewer gas tax dollars were collected for construction projects.
That being said, some lawmakers never thought the transportation bill would produce the number of jobs promised. When told about the figures, Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, said she wasn't surprised. Anderson said, however, that it would be helpful for state agencies to keep track of the number of jobs created by the transportation and bonding bills.
"They certainly can go back now and see 'did this dollar for dollar, produce what they said it was going to do?' And that should be a good indicator for us at the Minnesota Legislature as we're looking at things," she said.
Anderson said she also believes it's important to monitor the number of Minnesota jobs created from President Obama's proposed stimulus package.
Rep. Oberstar said he intends to do just that. He said states will have to report the number of transportation contracts awarded with money from the bill on a monthly basis. He also wants to know how many workers will be hired under each contract and what they will do.
"We want that report because I intend to track this investment month by month and show the American people what's working," he said. "And if it's not working to find out why not? And to take action to make sure that it does work."
As Oberstar and other supporters of the economic stimulus plan continue to campaign for it, one economist is warning them to be conservative with their job targets. Louis Johnston, who teaches at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University, said there's always a danger when policy makers attach specific job numbers to legislation.
"I think it would be much more useful both to policy makers and to the public to quote what the range of numbers is," he said. "Say, what the low estimate and what the high estimate is and if possible, what people think the likelihood are of those estimates."
Johnston said there will be plenty of economists who will study the impact of the economic stimulus package to see if it generates the number of jobs promised by the White House.
- Morning Edition, 02/11/2009, 7:20 a.m.