OLYMPIA – Some $35 million to finish the Riverpoint medical school building may flow into Spokane as the local business community’s top priority finds itself on a list of projects to address one of the Legislature’s own top priorities: jobs.
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 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 disputes that the Legislature should find ways to 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 labeled “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 medical school, officially 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 state’s capital budget.
“That’s about as good as it gets,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said Wednesday afternoon. A project that is on just one list could be 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 providers 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 as plumbers and concrete layers spend their paychecks at stores, theaters and restaurants.
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 a news conference Tuesday, they released a list of seven steps that they say would help small businesses, which would 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,” said House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis. “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 to raise the money still 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 it 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,” said state Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake. That means focus on reforms that help businesses, not come up with a string of public projects.”
But the Jobs Now package includes 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 as a college economics professor. “This is not some Keynesian program of paying people to dig holes and fill them up later.”