OLYMPIA – Trying to spark job growth, Democrats in Washington’s state Senate on Tuesday proposed a “middle-class jobs package” focused on retraining, environmental jobs and building infrastructure such as statewide high-speed Internet access.
“We believe our first job is about jobs,” said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.
She said the proposal could spawn 25,000 new jobs in Washington over the next two years. It’s designed to work in conjunction with a similar federal stimulus package proposed by President-elect Barack Obama.
Republicans are skeptical of the plan, saying it doesn’t offer Main Street employers much help.
“It’s a lot easier to preserve jobs than to create them,” said Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, “and Senate Republicans would have emphasized that point had we been invited to help develop this package.”
The Senate plan is the first of at least three economic stimulus proposals from Olympia in the next month. Gov. Chris Gregoire is expected to unveil her plan Thursday. Lawmakers in the House of Representatives say they’ll offer their own plan within a few weeks.
Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, said the goal of the Senate plan is to foster a climate in which workers are well-trained and businesses can thrive. Innovation and job-creating breakthroughs typically comes from small, entrepreneurial companies, he said.
The plan includes:
•A new state entity to help high-speed Internet service reach rural areas. Broadband access will prove as important to rural areas’ growth as the interstate highway system has been for the state as a whole, Kastama predicts.
•Offering help to homeowners and businesses in increasing their buildings’ energy efficiency and boosting weatherization work to cover 20,000 more homes per year.
•A Business and Occupation tax credit for small companies with 10 to 15 employees that hire new workers.
“This is a time when we think a targeted small business tax credit would really be worth the money,” Brown said. The amount of the tax break has yet to be determined.
•Expanding tax-increment financing programs that use future tax dollars to pay for public works projects such as the roads, sewers, and water lines needed for growth.
•A sales tax exemption for the purchase of high-efficiency green construction materials used to retrofit buildings and homes.
•Streamlining the permit and regulatory process so that ready-to-go construction projects can get under way.
•Using the state’s unemployment insurance fund to revamp job training to focus on preparing workers for high-demand fields such as health care. Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, said the state has 12,000 vacancies in nursing and other jobs now.
Proponents had few specifics on cost, although Brown said most of the changes would cost relatively little. Lawmakers said they are waiting to see how much federal stimulus money the state will get before providing more specifics.
Zarelli said the plan falls short. He and other Republicans, he said, would rather see more tax credits “to give employers hope that Washington’s business climate will change for the better.”