Stimulus-created job numbers due Saturdayby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The state of Minnesota has until Saturday to report exactly how much economic stimulus money it spent through September and how many jobs that spending either saved or created.
Whatever the results turn out to be, the new numbers are likely to spur more debate over the controversial American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Sarah Fehr runs the East Side Arts Council, a small nonprofit on the East Side of St. Paul. She's not swimming in economic stimulus money, but said the $25,000 she is getting is a tremendous help.
Fehr said a major focus of her organization's work is to bring artists to east St. Paul schools -- an effort that stimulus money is now helping to support.
"It's just a huge relief to have enough money to make sure that we don't have to cut back on our staff and to keep our artists employed," Fehr said.
Fehr knows exactly how many jobs the stimulus saved at the East Side Arts Council: one position. But in many cases, measuring stimulus-funded job creation and retention is much more of a guessing game than a body count.
Across town, Kathy Rodriguez, the coordinator of a Meals on Wheels program at the West 7th Community Center, said stimulus money is helping to pay for the her work Rodriguez. She thinks the stimulus is a good use of taxpayer dollars.
"I think it puts more people to work," she said. "They're doing productive work and it's necessary for mankind and for people that have to work."
Jean Wood, head of Minnesota Board on Aging, said Rodriguez's position could be one of many jobs the stimulus money saved statewide.
"We do know that we have retained about eight jobs statewide with the funds," she said. "[But] we are not going to be able to say that we created new jobs."
It's not clear exactly which jobs were saved, even though the board is reporting an precise job number.
Wood said her agency arrived at the eight jobs figure, not by counting people, but by using a formula, one of the methods authorized by the Obama administration. The Minnesota Board on Aging is getting $1.5 million in stimulus money. Wood said so far they've spent about $400,000.
All over the county, stimulus money recipients have been scrambling to report how much they've spent and how many jobs the federal money either saved or created.
Scott Pattison, the Executive Director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, said compiling the reports has been a formidable challenge. Pattison said getting a handle on those jobs saved and created numbers is extremely complicated.
"There are all kinds of very technical aspects to this," Pattison said. "And frankly, very technical accounting aspects that have had to be ironed out."
Pattison said despite good intentions and a lot of hard work, he expects this first reporting go around will not be without errors.
"I'm hoping that people understand that not everything will be perfect," he said. "This is the first time that we've done anything of this magnitude."
The politics of job creation efforts
There's a lot riding on the numbers everyone's been waiting for. Since the stimulus passed, supporters have been touting its success. At a news conference late last month, Karen Mills, the head of the U.S. Small Business Administration, was at a kitchen remodeling store in Crystal promoting an SBA stimulus program called the "ARC" loan.
"The best performing place, the place where we've gotten the most ARC loans into the hands of small businesses is right here in Minnesota," she said at the time.
Accurate or not, the answers to the questions 'How's the money been spent?' and 'How many jobs have been saved or created?' are certain to get a lot of attention.
During a recent conference call with governors from around the county, Vice President Joe Biden emphasized the importance of accuracy and jokingly referred to how high the stakes are. "If it fails, I'm dead," he said.
Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier said, with concrete job numbers, the battle over the stimulus will enter a new chapter. Schier thinks the issue could be the central focus of debate in next year's Congressional elections.
"Some Democrats will certainly be anxious to claim credit for the benefits that come through the bill," Schier said. "On the other hand, Republicans are going to be looking for sings of malfeasance or inefficiency."
Schier said in Minnesota, the political battle over the stimulus will likely be hardest fought in the state's most competitive Congressional districts.
Republican Congressman Erik Paulsen's 3rd District is one of those. Paulsen is a vocal opponent of the stimulus. When the numbers come out, Paulsen said they'll show that the vast majority of the money hasn't even been spent eight months after Congress passed the bill.
Paulsen said he and other Republicans will use the spending data to try to take back stimulus money.
"If we still have a huge amount of money that is unspent out of the stimulus bill, it might be much more advantageous to either take that money and go back and pay down the national debt now or to reinvest it in some sort of a jump start for small businesses," he said.
While Paulsen hopes the soon-to-be released stimulus job reports will help opponents of the plan dismantle it, Democratic Sen. Al Franken thinks the information will likely hammer home just how many jobs the spending saved.
Franken was not yet in the Senate when Congress passed the bill, but he said it was the right thing to do and that it's certainly helping. More than half of the money Minnesota will get is offsetting cuts in state spending.
"So those jobs literally are saved. I mean people go, 'Oh well, these numbers about jobs saved, I don't believe them' Well they are. I mean that's what they are and that's been a successful part of this," Franken said.
As for who the stimulus helps politically, Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier said support in Minnesota will likely be closely tied to the economy.
"If it seems to correlate with an economic recovery in the state, then I think it's an easier argument to make that the stimulus may have had some part to play in that," Schier said. "If, on the other hand, we continue to be plagued by slow growth and large unemployment, that gives a lot of advantage to stimulus critics."
Federal and state officials plan to begin posting preliminary stimulus spending and employment reports next week.