OLYMPIA – Some $35 million to finish the Riverpoint medical school building may flow into Spokane as the top priority for the area’s business community finds itself on a list of projects to address one of the Legislature’s top priorities.
Or the project may find itself in the middle of a debate over the role of government in creating jobs. . .
...It’s difficult to go anywhere in or around the Capitol Building without hearing legislators, lobbyists or state officials utter that four-letter word. While Democrats and Republicans have decidedly different ideas on the best way to create, expand or secure jobs, no one argues the Legislature should find ways to stimulate jobs and ease unemployment rates still high from a recession economists say is over.
On Wednesday, key legislators in the House and Senate released separate wish lists they label “Jobs Now”, compilations of construction, reconstruction and rehabilitation projects the state would do if it sold about $1 billion in special bonds to pay for them.
The med school, technically known as the Riverpoint Biomedical and Health Sciences Building, is on both lists for $35 million, the amount needed to complete the project after construction started last year with a similar appropriation from the Capital Budget.
“That’s about as good as it gets,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said Wednesday afternoon. A project on just one list faces the prospect of being bumped off as legislators try to reconcile different plans, but the med school “is not a bargaining chip at this point.”
Earlier Wednesday, representatives of the building trades unions, a major contractors group, church organizations and social service advocates urged the Legislature to think bigger, and come up with twice as much money for construction projects next year. Although there are some signs of recovery, it isn’t reaching the construction sector, Dave Meyers of the Building and Construction Trades Council said. Money spent on construction turns over in the local economy, at stores, theaters and restaurants as plumbers and concrete layers spend their paychecks to support those jobs.
But many Republicans, along with allies in the Washington Policy Center and the National Federation of Independent Business, are arguing that government-backed construction projects are the wrong way to stimulate jobs. At their press conference Tuesday, they released a list of seven steps that they say will help small business, which will then expand their operations or start new ones to create – you guessed it – jobs.
Tax simplification, regulatory reform, tort reform on medical malpractice and changes to the state’s unemployment and workers compensation programs were on the list. A major state bond issue was not.
“This is a budget raid,” House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, said. “If you really want to do a jobs bill, do a jobs bill that has regulatory reform. We have a Capital Budget for infrastructure.”
The Capital Budget also pays for major construction projects with bonds. The difference is that those bonds are paid off by a constitutionally limited amount of the General Fund; the Jobs Now package would tap other state funds, which get money for various fees or charges dedicated to a range of needs, like environmental cleanup or college construction. It would not require a tax increase, but the details of how much money from which fund would be applied to which projects are things that have to be worked out and reconciled between House and Senate proposals.
The debate could come down to a familiar one that has raged since the federal government tried to stave off the recession with a series of “stimulus” packages, and could be central to this year’s presidential race: Should the government take the lead role in job creation, or should it get out of the way and let private enterprise be the engine of job creation?
“It should support businesses to do what they do best,” Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry R-Moses Lake, said. That means focus on reforms that help businesses, not come up with a string of public projects.
But the Jobs Now package are projects that need to be done, and the bond issue would just allow the state to take advantage of cheaper labor in slack construction times, said Brown, whose other job is a college economics professor: “This is not some Keynesian program of paying people to dig holes and fill them up later.”